Tag Archives: ‘Terror”

Addison’s Disease and Deaths on Franklin’s North West Passage Expedition of the 1840s

12 Sep

I was interested to read that Professor Russell Taichman of the University of Michigan, an expert on the Franklin expedition and the North West Passage, has developed a new theory to help explain deaths amongst the Franklin naval crew -a mystery that continues to intrigue. As is well known there were no survivors amongst the 129 crew on this expedition. Malnutrition, scurvy, lead poisoning, tuberculosis and even botulism have been considered.
Professor Taichman and his colleagues now propose that tuberculosis, a very common disease at the time, could have damaged the adrenal glands and resulted in Addison’s disease an endocrine disorder, which causes a reduction of steroid hormone output. This condition, Professor Taichman suggests, may well have been the cause of some of the deaths. Their findings were published in the journal ‘Arctic’ earlier this year.
When, in 1846, the ships ‘Erebus’ and ‘Terror’ became trapped near King William Island (northern Canada), they were well stocked with canned food and the crew spent two years on and around the island hoping that the ice would melt and their ships escape.
Inuit accounts described emaciated crewmembers with “hard, dry and black” mouths and Professor Taichman, decided to study the various cause-of-death theories and consider how each condition affects the oral cavity.
Taichman and Mark MacEachern, a librarian at the University of Michigan Taubman Health Sciences Library, cross-referenced the crew’s physical symptoms with known diseases. They analysed 1,718 medical citations and were interested to find that the suggestion of Addison’s disease kept appearing during the analysis. In the 1840s the most common cause of the disease was tuberculosis. Potential supporting evidence for tuberculosis was discovered when autopsies of three sailors who had died and were buried on a nearby island,revealed evidence of tuberculosis.
Addison’s disease was not described until 1855 and all of Addison’s six original patients had tuberculosis of the adrenal glands. Nowadays however, the diagnosis of Addison’s disease does not imply any particular underlying diagnosis (of which there are several). Sufferers have poor regulation of sodium, low blood pressure, a curious pigmentation of the mouth and skin creases of the hands; they become dehydrated, and cannot maintain their weight even when food is available. The diagnosis is easy to arrive at nowadays as long as the symptoms are recognised as being possibly due to Addison’s. I vividly remember one young lady who was reduced to literally crawling up stairs in her home before the diagnosis was finally considered.
TB causing Addison’s disease seems a very possible cause of death in some of these poor crewmembers in their terrible situation.



2 Jan

In Waterloo Place, St James, London there is a poignant tribute to Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition, planned to last three years from 1845, to find the Northwest Passage – the sea route that links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The names of the 129 Royal Naval officers and men who lost their lives in the expedition are listed on each side of the memorial.

The Northwest Passage runs from its eastern entry from the North Atlantic (between Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago) and is contiguous with Canada’s northern mainland coast. The discovery of a route through the maze of islands making up the archipelago was considered to be a most important economic prize. Although it lay within the Arctic Circle and the passage was thought to be frozen most of the year, many speculated that the route would be considerably shorter than the long sea route via the South Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean and The West Coast of North America

The route had been sought for many years and many thousands of pounds were offered as a prize to the successful navigator. Experienced seamen had failed to do this though many miles of the Northern Canadian coast and its archipelago had been explored and surveyed.

Sir John Franklin had been one of these explorers. In total he made four journeys to the Arctic. On the second, the expedition ran out of food and the men chewed leather to reduce their hunger pangs. This thrilling escapade made Franklin a British National Hero. On his third expedition he mapped over 1000 miles of the Northern Canadian Mainland coast and like subsequent explorers recorded the weather, wild life and plant life. In 1845, aged 59, he was considered an excellent choice to lead a further expedition and to gain the elusive prize.
Franklin led an expedition of 2 ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, (whose names are now well recognised as volcanoes on Ross Island in Antarctica). They were sailing ships but had small steam engines to blast through the ice. The ships carried food for 3 years including thousands of tins that were sealed with lead, (which, it is now speculated, could have caused lead poisoning). The ships left England in May 1845 and were last seen off Baffin Island in July of that year. It is known that initially the expedition explored Canada’s Northern coast but in the winter of 1846-47 the ships were beset in the Victoria Strait, an area of deep sea between Victoria Island and King William Island.
Franklin died in June 1847, many of the crew sickened and died. Later the same year the ships were abandoned when Captain Crozier decided to attempt to travel south overland to seek help. No one survived.
Many expeditions went subsequently to try to ascertain the fate of the men, including John Ross and his nephew James Clark Ross, McClintock (who was given buttons, needles and knives from the ship) and John Rae (Orkney’s greatest unsung hero and Edward Wilson’s personal hero) who recorded that cannibalism had occurred (hotly contested by the Great British Public including Charles Dickens and Sir John Franklin’s widow, Lady Jane who spent her fortune financing search parties).
There have now been remarkable developments. Recently the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition was launched to find the lost vessels. Huge resources were put to the task that was backed by the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. A helicopter expedition to an island in the eastern end of Queen Maud Gulf found remains from one of the ships; the wonderful find of an iron fitting from a davit and two halves of a deck hawser plug. Soon after a sonar towfish found the wreck of one of Franklins ships. This was subsequently identified as Erebus
Stephen Harper spoke at a press conference in September 2014 in Ottawa of the truly historic moment for Canada. He said that Franklin’s expedition laid the foundations of Canada’s Arctic history
There will be much more. The hull is amazingly intact. It may be that information will appear about the fate of Franklin. Great stuff!



12 Sep

The Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific is becoming more accessible. The sea ice is disappearing fast. This summer it has shrunk to its lowest since measurements began.

Apparently in 1979, the ice covered nearly 14 million square kilometers. This year it measured 4.1 million sq km.

This has one indisputable effect. The Northwest Passage is becoming more accessible, for navigation and exploration.

As is well known, in 1845 Sir John Franklin led a Royal Naval expedition that was to chart northern Canada and attempt to discover a route through the Northwest Passage, the ‘shortcut’ from the East to West. Sir John perished along with the crews of ‘Erebus’ and ‘Terror’ (the names that had been given given by Ross to the two volcanoes on Ross Island in Antarctica). Searches to discover conclusively what happened to the expedition have regularly failed. There is now a traditional annual summer search for the remains of the ships.  At the rate the sea ice is disappearing, the chances of finding them improve each year.