Was not water rather than canned food a more likely source for lead poisoning?

This was the first paper I published on the subject of the Franklin Expedition.  You can download it here (free, although I would recommend anyone interested to consider very seriously joining the Hakluyt Society). The abstract reads as follows:

Since 1982, signs of a high exposure to lead have been identified in the human remains of members
of John Franklin’s expedition to the Arctic, 1845–8. Tinned food has been suggested as the source
of this lead. This paper provides evidence that the primary source of this lead was not tinned food,
which was in widespread use in the Royal Navy at the time, but the unique water system fitted to
the expedition’s ships.

The thinking behind the paper is explained in it, athough perhaps not as carefully as I would now wish. The blockbuster published on the Franklin Expedition was Owen Beattie and John Geiger’s ‘Frozen in Time’ – a runaway bestseller which has brought the story of the Franklin Expedition home to millions around the world.  The book was based on the remarkable research which Owen Beattie carried out into the fragmentary bone remains of Franklin Expedition members who had died on Beechey Island.  He found that these remains we very high in lead with concentrations of lead which were completely lacking in contemporary Inuit remains, for example.  This raised in his mind the possibility that these men had suffered form lead poisoning.  Perhaps there was something on the ships or in their diet which had poisoned them?  This was and remains a perfectly plausible theory, but there are a number of problems with it.

One was that there was no ‘control’. Beattie knew that contemporary Inuit had very little lead in their bones, but then lead was not part of their technology.  There was no data available to say whether these high levels of bone lead in the Franklin Expedition members’ remains would have been normal for those officers and sailors if they were at home in the nineteenth century or not.  So was this just background lead, albeit very high, from Victorian Britain, or was it something that built up while they were on the Expedition? The half-life of lead in the human body complicated this question. The half-life for lead in bone is very long – something like 20 years – whereas long half-life of lead in human soft tissues is short – say 30 days.  Owen Beattie realised that one solution would be to recover from the grave the remains of the three Franklin Expedition members who had been buried at Beechey Island.  Since teir bodies would have frozen as soon as they were buried, and would remain buried, there was a high chance their soft tissues would survive to be examined.

And thus started a sensational piece of medical work!  As described in ‘Frozen in Time’, Owen Beattie and his team flew to Beechey Island in 1982 and carried out the three autopsies.  The experiences they documented in the book, and the photographs, are some of the most moving parts of the Franklin story. The pathological results were published in the book, with Owen Beattie and his team demonstrating that lead levels were high not only in the men’s bones but also in their soft tissues and hair.  But Beattie and Geiger in the book went further. They had noticed piles of cans from the tinned food which the Franklin Expedition took with them still littering Beechey Island. Plain on these cans were large amounts of lead solder.  It was very easy to put two and two together and apparently derive the figure four, by linking these two pieces of evidence together and to conclude, as the book does, that the men had high levels of lead in them CAUSED by this visible lead soldering in the cans at Beechey Island. Even today John Geiger asserts this as a fact in the book ‘Franklin’s Lost Ship: The Historic Discovery of HMS Erebus‘ which he co-authored with Alanna Mitchel.

Here the story remained until a brilliant Australian food technologist, the late Keith Farrar, looked into the issue.  He cast doubt on the theory that the lead poisoning was the result of eating tinned food, pointing out that lead ingested in food is mostly passed out, andalso pointing out a  a number of theoretical and practical issues with it.  This provoked a too-ing and fro-ing of scientific papers which the curious can pick up from the internet.  At first I was convinced by the ‘Beattie and Geiger’ argument but the logic of Farrar’s refutation worried me.  Could there be, I though, another and completely different source of lead poisoning on these ships?  One of the things which Farrar had pointed out was that lead is much more easily taken up by the body when dissolved in water rather than included in solid food.   This got me thinking: could there be a source of lead pollution in the water systems of the ships?

One of the other things which had always puzzled me about the ‘tin can’ thesis was that by the 1840’s tinned food was in pervasive use on all sorts of Expeditions, in the Royal Navy, the Army and other places.  For example, Fitzjames and his comrades on the Euphrates Expedition took large quantities of ‘preserved meats’, or tinned food in the parlance of the day.  Yet there were no signs of the apparently cataclysmic effects of lead poisoning on these Expeditions. I started to look for a source of lead poisoning through water on the Franklin Expedition which would have been UNIQUE to the 1845 Expedition. And I soon found one.

All the authorities, including Cyriax, quoted contemporary journalists’ accounts of their visits to the Erebus and Terror immediately before they sailed as saying that the ships had a unique steam heating system, and of course we know they were uniquely fitted with converted locomotive engines for auxiliary propulsion.  I consulted the ships plans held at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and soon, just as easily as Owen Beattie and John Geiger had done, put two and two apparently to derive four.  You can read the result in the paper.

I still believe that IF lead poisoning occurred on the Expedition, it must have been borne by water.  Elementary mathematics shows that it would have been utterly impossible for the tinned food taken on the Expedition to have caused lead poisoning on the scale still asserted by those who still clink to the ‘tin can’ thesis.

One of the first people to contact me on publication of my original paper was Peter Carney.  Peter pointed out that I had incorrectly interpreted the contemporary plans in my paper.  We entered into correspondence and decided to collaborate on a re-examination of the plans and the contemporary evidence for the fitting out of the ships.  The result is presented here. While this demonstrated that there was no steam heating system fitted, it did not invalidate the thesis that water could still have led to substantial lead poisoning, uniquely on this Expedition.  And this is something which Peter continues to research.

The other issue is the extent to which the original evidence from the 1980’s can be used to demonstrate exceptional (for the time) levels of lead poisoning.  Research into this continues also.

Of course the relocation of HMS Erebus and the possibility to learn from whatever is contained in her moves the focus of Franklin research from exclusively mining nineteenth century records to twenty-first century archaeology. Though now flawed, this original paper still stands as a refutation of the ‘tin can thesis’ and helped set me off on a long road for further research.