Evidence for sickness on other Naval Expeditions to the Arctic

One of the great puzzles of the Franklin Expedition has been assumptions on the health of members of the Expedition at various times. Debate has raged over all sorts of issues – whether their tinned food was contaminated or not, and if so by what, whether the Expedition was crippled by lead poisoning, and so on. Such forensic evidence as there is has been pored over in great detail but unless or until the sick books of the Expedition’s surgeons are recovered it’s been very difficult to see how research into this might be taken forward.

But the question of the health or otherwise of the Expedition becomes even more interesting if the location and condition of the Erebus and Terror suggest that the men of the Franklin Expedition might have lived on one or both ships for five years, or even longer. Is this even possible?

One insight into this is the health experience of men living in similar conditions on similar Royal Navy ships of the time. Last year I was privileged to collaborate with three eminent scientists from the University of Glasgow, Professor Keith Millar, Professor Adrian Bowman and Professor Richard Welbury. Keith’s area of study has been clinical psychology, Richard’s dentistry and Adrian’s is statistics. Keith had the brilliant idea of re-examining the sick-books of RN ships of the Franklin era to see what illnesses and injuries were reported at the time, and then to reassess them systematically in the light of modern medical science. The results were published in the Polar Record in February here. For those who do not have access to academic libraries, I thought it might be interesting to review some of the finding in the light of the recent announcement about HMS Terror. I should stress that what follows here are entirely my personal thoughts on the paper and my fellow authors are not responsible!

The hardest work in writing this paper was Keith’s heroic review of the Sick books of HMS Enterprise and Investigator on their voyages to the Arctic in 1848-1849 and again under Collinson and McClure during the years 1849 to 1855 and of HMS Assistance, HMS Intrepid, HMS Pioneer and HMS resolute during the years 1850 to 1854 first under Austin and then Belcher. It took Keith many weeks in the National Archive to go through these books and classify every one of the 1,480 separate cases of illness or injury that occurred on those ships during that time. All of these cases he reclassified using modern medical terms and understanding and entered into a single spreadsheet. This data was then analysed using Adrian’s statistical wizardry.

The result is a database of information which has always existed but never before been analysed systematically using modern medical knowledge. It shows how men actually lived, and died, on ships of the Franklin era in the Arctic, on the same diet and using the same (or similar) equipment as on the Erebus and Terror in 1845-50. If, for example, the Franklin Expedition was destroyed by Botulism, as Scott Cookman asserts in ‘Ice Blink’, then we should expect SOME associated symptoms to appear on these ships. Likewise with lead poisoning. As Peter Carney has shown just recently, the equipment on board the Erebus and Terror certainly had the capability to produce water very high in lead under certain conditions and almost certainly did. Might we expect to see some evidence of lead poisoning in the sick-books of other ships using broadly similar equipment under similar conditions? And so on. Of course we cannot push analogy, which is what this is, too far. But it is instructive at the very least to look at the data.

I’d encourage everyone interested to get a copy of the paper and look through it for themselves. The data shows that injuries, frostbite and rheumatism caused by sledging and other excursions into the very harsh conditions outside the ships were common. As you would expect. Also common were respiratory and gastro-intestinal conditions of various types, and in fact these conditions caused more than half of the 22 deaths recorded. Scurvy was identified in 68 men and was given as the cause of death of four of them, but there is strong evidence in the database and elsewhere that in reality scurvy was a lot more prevalent and was under-reported. Keith has looked into the possible reasons for his and has come up with strong evidence to suggest that the way the lemon juice for the search squadrons, and for Franklin’s ships, was prepared would have greatly reduced the amount of vitamin C in it and hence its ability to protect against scurvy. Also lacking in this data was any evidence pointing to lead poisoning – the symptoms which might be considered pointers to it were of short duration and therefore could not have been caused by a long and sustained exposure to lead.

All of this data suggests, therefore, and purely on the basis of analogy, that Franklin’s Expedition is likely to have suffered significant injury and death, over time, from accident and exposure, tuberculosis and other respiratory conditions and also from scurvy during any extended periods during which the men did not receive fresh food from hunting or trapping.  This is not to say, of course, that what happened, or did not happen, on the searching ships must also happened on the Erebus and Terror.

There is however one very stark point of difference between the health experience of these ships and the little which we DO know of the Franklin Expedition. On every ship in this database, there is no significant difference between the death rates of officers and non-commissioned ranks. Yet from the Victory Point note we know that by April 1848, 35 months in to the Franklin Expedition, the death rates of officers and men were sharply divergent. At that point nine of the officers on the Franklin Expedition had died, including Franklin – meaning 40% were dead – whereas the death rate amongst non-commissioned members of the Expedition was only 14%. This is extremely interesting. Something was happening, or not happening, on the Franklin Expedition which WAS different from the other ships, but whatever it was it’s difficult to see how this ‘thing’ can have been health related. If something like lead or botulism was poisoning the men on the Erebus and the Terror, then we would expect it to affect everyone more or less the same – disease has no respect for a holder of the Queen’s Commission.

Perhaps there were one or two catastrophic accidents which overcame parties of officers on the Franklin Expedition, which caused this greater death-rate among officers? Or perhaps the officers made an even greater effort to hunt for fresh food than their counterparts on other Expeditions? If they were more successful in hunting than officers on other Expeditions, perhaps this might explain why the Expedition survived as long as it seems to have done? In this context one remembers Franklin’s words in his letter to Sir John Richardson or 7th July, 1845: ‘I shall, of course, despatch parties on boats and by land to examine into and find out passages in places where it may be difficult and only productive of delay in taking the ships’. And also his orders apparently to store fresh food wherever possible, even salting seabirds in each cask of salt meat as the original contents were consumed?

Franklin has certainly had his detractors over the years, but perhaps he personally placed a greater emphasis on hunting and sourcing food from the environment than did other Arctic captains of his day? Even to the point where a significant proportion of the officers lost their lives in the attempt?

This description of the paper and my thoughts on it are perforce slightly rushed, even though the paper was published in February of this year, because I hope in the light of the finding of HMS Terror it may be of some interest.