Health problems on HMS Terror during Back’s Arctic Expedition, 1836-7

One of the things which puzzled me when I first started to look at the issue of lead-poisoning on the Franklin Expedition was the apparently exemplary health record of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror during their four year voyage to the Antarctic under Ross and Crozier in 1839-43. I gradually realised that the reason if lead poisoned Franklin’s Expedition, then the lead could not possibly come from tinned food because, apart form any other consideration, tinned food did not form a large enough part of the diet.   Water, however, is pervasive in the diet and can very easily take up enormous quantities of lead, especially where water is produced wither by melting snow or ice or by condensing steam.  If ice-melting was introducing lead into the water, then it would do only when it was used in the winter.  And because Ross and Crozier never overwintered in the ice in 1839-43, this could explain why their voyages were never affected by lead poisoning.  Ross and Crozier did of course take tinned food, so if this had been the source of lead poisoning on the Franklin Expedition, one might it similarly to have affected Ross, Crozier and their men during the four years they consumed it.

HMS Erebus never overwintered in ice prior to the Franklin Expedition. But HMS Terror had done nearly ten years earlier, in 1836-7. In this posting I examine Sir George Back’s account of the illness experience of the Terror in that winter. You can find his full account here. Does it provide us with any evidence for what may have happened on the Franklin Expedition? I would argue: yes it does.

When Back set off in summer 1836 on HMS Terror, morale was high, just as it would be on the Franklin Expedition in 1845. In May 1836 Back wrote that his sailors ‘presented to the view as fine a body of men as could glad the heart of a commander’ and on September 5th he commended on their high morale and good spirits, noting how ‘the light-hearted fellows pulled in unison to a cheerful song, and laughed and joked with the unreflecting merriment of schoolboys’ when engaged in very heavy work.

But shortly after 17th October, the date Back ordered the ship’s heating system to be fired up, he noted a very sharp decline in the morale of his crew. They showed signs of ‘laxity’ and a ‘want of discipline, and attention to personal comfort’ and only the ‘steady and undeviating system pursued by the first lieutenant’ was able to maintain discipline. On the lower deck the atmosphere became ‘unsociable, suspicious, and uncomfortable’. Back also noticed a decline in his own energy levels – he was surprised by the ‘great fatigue’ he experienced on 23rd October during a six mile walk across the ice. Wikipedia says that ‘early symptoms of lead poisoning in adults are commonly nonspecific and include depression, loss of appetite, intermittent abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhoea, constipation, and muscle pain’. This marked decline in morale and energy which Back observed set in just a few weeks after the men would have started to consume drinking water produced by melting ice in the ship’s ice-melting tank.

But this heating system, unlike those fitted for the Franklin Expedition in 1845, was unreliable and on 6th November it was condemned and dismantled. Very significantly, Back recorded that when it was dismantled, he ‘availed [him]self of the lead and copper attached to it, for fitting up a Fraser’s stove a little before the main-hatchway on the lower deck’. This is very interesting. A Fraser’s stove was a device which produced water for drinking, either by melting ice in a tank above it, or distilling sea-water in its body. This passage shows that the Fraser stove, the device used up to then to produce drinking water for the ship’s company, HAD incorporated lead components. Some of these were reused, but from this point HMS Terror seems to have used a number of different systems both for heating and melting ice.

As winter lengthened, Back’s officers fought a losing battle to sustain morale. Until the middle of December 1836, the officers tried ‘for about six hours every day except Sundays’ to involve the men in ‘some easy work on the ice, as was absolutely requisite for their health, but it was in vain that we endeavoured to lead them into the wholesome habit of amusing themselves with games or dancing, to cheer their spirits, and while away the long hours of our winter evenings’. The men were lethargic and reluctant to participate. By now Back starts to allude to physical as well as psychological problems. He wrote that ‘the most trivial cold or other complaint induced despondency and an attack in the joints of the legs and limbs [was] attended with extravasation of blood, for which it may be remarked there was some difficulty in accounting’. Although some of these symptoms were ‘scorbutic’, he recognised that this was not actually scurvy. Many of its symptoms were absent and the men were receiving a good allowance of lime juice, cranberries and some fresh meat. Graham Gore, who was to die a Commander on Franklin’s Expedition, served as a Mate with Back and was an extremely good shot. He brought in fresh meat periodically throughout the winter. Back did not know what the illness that was afflicting his ship was, but it ‘excited the most discouraging apprehensions’. The illness manifested itself as ‘numbness of limbs, affections of the gums, and other symptoms of scurvy’ which afflicted more and more men every day in spite of all the efforts of the officers.

By Christmas, even this gentle exercise routine was too much for the debilitated ship’s company. It was abandoned because ‘notwithstanding the unremitting endeavours of the officers to keep the men in sufficient exercise for the rapid circulation of the blood, such was their perverseness or sluggishness, that though constantly frost-bitten from mere want of exertion, they would lounge about, when left to themselves, with the listlessness which belongs to a tropical climate’. By the end of the year the morale boosting effort was limited to the ‘active and amusing diversion’ of a football match with the officers. Several officers were now also affected by similar symptoms, which consisted very largely of psychological and motor difficulties. ‘The gunner, Mr. Donaldson, was in a very feeble state, not being able to walk more than a quarter of an hour without assistance; and many more were limping and complaining of general debility’. Back had to set up special hospital areas, either on the ship or ashore, to try to provide more intensive nursing care for the worst cases.

The first death occurred on 13th January. ‘Graham Walker had been for some time under the care of the medical gentlemen who, at first, had good grounds for supposing that little was the matter with him. However, he was treated as a sick man; and for want of exercise, or by some means or other, he soon contrived to render himself so in earnest. Unhappily the symptoms shortly after became scorbutic, and the man being of melancholic temperament, and utterly incapable of being roused or cheered, grew daily worse. Yet his appetite continued good until within the last few days, and even on these he always ate some nourishing diet. This day, however, at 9 pm he died without suffering, and indeed so calmly, that those in attendance were unconscious of the moment of his departure’. Walker’s body was buried at sea through a hole in the ice, not on land like the three Franklin Expedition burials at Beechey Island.

On 18th January Back reported that the gunner, Donaldson, ‘was dangerously weak and evinced a disposition to incoherency’. Nor had the others recovered, ‘for although their general health was sometimes better, yet their legs continued discoloured, hard, and bent’.

There was the start of a recovery of morale in January. On 20th January Back was surprised ‘while taking my accustomed evening exercise within the snow-wall inclosure… at hearing the sound of music somewhere on the floe, and before I could get outside the gallery, the whole crew, headed by the armourer, playing the fife, and under the orders of Mr. Vaughan, the boatswain, marched up in file, singing the song of the “Southern Breezes.”They halted with a hearty laugh at the word of command, as given out by someone in military fashion, Halt, front! and gave three hearty cheers; then placing the fifer on a hummock, they finished with a country dance, in which the slipping, sliding, and falling of the performers gave occasion to much mirth’. This was unexpected evidence of a fairly dramatic lifting of the gloom which had seized on the ship’s company and for Back, worrying over the hitherto inexorable decline in morale, it was ‘a most agreeable sight’.

The following week, for the first time in several months, the ‘number of sick did not materially increase, and even of these the general health of several might be called positively good. They were almost free from pain, but could not get rid of the callousness of the part affected, which continued, in spite of every effort, as hard as if it had been thoroughly frozen. One man only (and his was more a rheumatic than a scorbutic case) had returned to his duty’. But the worst cases showed no signs of improvement and while the morale of the company improved slightly, more men were now affected by the ‘extraordinary callosity of limbs’ which was the most marked symptom. Donaldson died on 1st February. For weeks he had lain ‘in a state of drowsy torpor, from which the medical officers had great difficulty to rouse him. He scarcely took any sustenance; and we could not contemplate the slow but marked change which was going on without gloomy apprehensions’. So lethargic was he that Back said ‘he may be said to have slumbered to death’. Back contrasted this general debility with the apparently local nature of the affliction in most other men, which now is described mainly as a lameness or stiffness in the limbs.

This seems to have been the low point, and two weeks later, on 14th February, Back noticed that he himself was now much less depressed and suddenly had a much more optimistic outlook. After a further ten days, Dr. Donovan was able to report that for the first time the health of the whole ship’s company was improving. Although one more man had gone down with the illness, many of those on the sick list were now showing signs of recovery and by 10th March health and morale had improved enough for the men to have frolicked outside constructing snowmen, including ‘a female, favoured with a most liberal allowance of bust’.

By the beginning of April the epidemic was clearly passing as mysteriously as it had struck. ‘The medical officer … carefully inspected the whole crew; and with the exception of two men… they were reported free from positive illness and rapidly improving in appearance’ although ‘some of the number could not yet conquer the obstinate rigidity of the muscles of the leg’. The sickest continued to decline. Marine Alexander Young, who had been the first to be afflicted, was the last to die on 25th April, 1837. Even as late as June, some members of the crew were still lame, with ‘the knee or ankle joints of two-thirds on board … more or less affected with shooting pains or twitches, betokening weakness, and few .. [able to] take even ordinary exercise without sensations of languor and uneasiness.’ This sounds quite alarming, and give that it is written clearly after several months’ recovery, it shows how sever the symptoms had been earlier.

So what had been going on?

Clearly there was a dramatic epidemic which started in October 1836 and which started to dissipate from about mid-February 1837. It must have had a physical cause – lead poisoning, scurvy or something else?


Scurvy seems unlikely. Its symptoms were well-known and we can see from Back’s account that the men regularly received fresh meat and lemon and lime juice. He knew this was not scurvy. And while there is mounting evidence that the Royal Navy’s lemon and lime juice was much less effective as an antiscorbutic the manifest of the ship, given by Back in his book, makes it clear that the Terror carried 798 gallons of lemon juice as well as an identical 798 gallons of lime-juice.  And while some of what Back, Franklin, Crozier and Fitzjames believed they knew about scurvy was erroneous, I believe they DID know to take lemon (or lime) juice and they DID recognise the importance of fresh meat.

Lead Poisoning

Lead poisoning is caused not by lead in bone, but by the amount of lead in the soft tissues and the blood system. Drinking water high in lead will lead to a rapid build-up of lead in the soft tissues. This is exactly what we see happening on the Back Expedition. Within a few weeks of the crew starting to melt ice and snow for water in their ice-melting tanks, the first symptoms of lead poisoning started to appear. Back described these first symptoms as ‘laxity’, a ‘want of discipline, and attention to personal comfort’ and an ‘unsociable, suspicious, and uncomfortable’ atmosphere. Back noticed ‘great fatigue’ in himself. Wikipedia describes them as: ‘depression, loss of appetite, intermittent abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhoea, constipation, and muscle pain’. This is consistent. Wikipedia describes the symptoms of acute lead poisoning – acute meaning an intense exposure of short duration as ‘pain, muscle weakness, paraesthesia, and, rarely, symptoms associated with encephalitis’. These muscle problems remind one of the ‘legs continued discoloured, hard, and bent’ reported by Back, or ‘the obstinate rigidity of the muscles of the leg’.

Lead in the soft tissues has a ‘half-life’ generally estimated at about 30 days. In other words, once the original source of contamination is removed, then the lead concentration in soft tissues will drop by a half in thirty days, and by a further half over the next thirty days. So 30-60 days after some men at least stopped drinking water produced by melting ice in tanks which included lead, we should expect to see a reduction in the symptoms of lead poisoning. HMS Terror stopped using the central heating and ice-melting system on 6th November to be replaced, it seems, by several jury-rigged systems. And sure enough there is a slow but steady recovery in the morale and health of the ship’s company from about the end of January, that is 60 days later.

As well as the soft tissue, lead is also laid down in bone. Here its half-life is measured in decades, but lead locked up in bone is inert and does not lead directly to lead-poisoning unless some physiological change forces the bone to release its lead. Therefore we would expect these men’s bone to show significantly raised levels of lead, which is what we see in men from the Franklin Expedition living on HMS Terror and HMS Erebus under similar conditions.

It is plausible to suggest that what happened on the Back Expedition of 1836-1837 was lead poisoning caused by the water system. It was only the good fortune that the central heating system broke down when it did that prevented more death and suffering. Their experience probably tells us what was happening on the Erebus and Terror as they lay locked in the ice at Beechey Island during the winter of 1845-6. It must have been a terrible time.

Something else?

Professor Russell Potter on reading the above cautioned that “malaise is a common feature of almost every British and American Arctic expedition of this period.”  And he is right. Russell went on to make the point that only an autopsy could get us any answers.

Peter Carney made a very good point: “lack of exposure to sunshine caus[es] a vitamin D deficiency which apparently is protective against lead poisoning.” This would explain why the incidence of illness coincided with darkness.

Russell Potter is right that an autopsy of one of Back’s dead would provide proof of this and we do not have this evidence, but we DO now have an autopsy of someone who almost certainly lived on HMS Erebus for at least two winters in the ice 1845-7: Harry Goodsir, if he is the ‘Greenwich skeleton’. And clearly he suffered not a trace of scurvy. Nor is there any trace of anything like a Vitamin D deficiency in his remains. Although they died earlier, there is no trace of vitamin C or D deficiency in the three dead from Beechey Island either. So perhaps a Vitamin deficiency makes sense for Back’s Expedition?  And maybe we will never know.