Franklin Lead Poisoning

While watching the documentary, “Buried in Ice”, about the Franklin Expedition, in class, I was absolutely amazed at the state of the bodies the scientists were examining. I could not believe that permafrost would almost perfectly preserve the bodies of those on the Franklin Expedition for over one hundred years. I thought it was really cool they found evidence of lead poisoning and could use that to draw conclusions about the crew’s demise. However, next class, I was surprised to find that there is a lot of current research disputing the fact that lead poisoning led to the explorers’ demise. In the documentary in class, the scientists seemed pretty confident that the high levels of lead found in the bodies of the mummies were due to the cans their food was kept in over the journey, and that this lead poisoning lead to the confusion that caused the crew to make the irrational decision to trek all the way across the frozen tundra. I decided to look some more into the new research that has been done on the Franklin mummies and the conclusions that can be drawn from this new research.

While scientists today are not arguing that there were high levels of lead found in the Franklin mummies, they now believe this was a result of lead accumulating in the body over a long period of time. They lead distribution was spread too evenly throughout the bodies for it to be a sudden and new occurrence, and no lead was found in areas where it should have been if it were recently ingested. Apparently, during the time of the Franklin expedition, lead pollution was common in Great Britain. These men would have most likely exposed to lead their whole life and the lead from the food cans would not have caused the high levels found in their body.

These new discoveries lead to two common theories. One is that the Franklin explorers did not have lead poisoning at all and that the lead found in their body was just part of the time they lived in. Those who believe this theory argue that with the confusion and muscle and nerve damage that comes with lead poisoning, the men would not have been able to voyage as far as they did and properly set up their camps as they did. They believe the demise of the crew was simply due to bad luck and their irrational trek across the island was simply a desperate attempt at survival. Others argue the crew did in fact have lead poisoning due to the living conditions in Britain at the time. If this is the case, the lead poisoning would have been building up in their bodies over their whole life and the effects would have began long before the voyage even set sail, meaning that the Franklin expedition would have been doomed from the very start.

4 thoughts on “Franklin Lead Poisoning

  1. I thought the state of their bodies was amazing too! In some pictures you could still see their eyes. Their hair was still there and their faces only looked minority warped from gravity pulling at the sides. As for the reasons for their deaths, I would think that extreme cold temperatures and inexperience of these conditions would be the most obvious answer. The arctic was much colder back then without global warming and the ice was much thicker. They clearly were in way over their heads even getting on the ship in the first place, with what inexperience they had. When they reached Beechy Island and King William Island they were most definitely doomed. If the inuit people saw them, I’m sure the men of the Franklin expedition saw the inuits in return. It is hard to not stick out in a land of barren ice. Did they think they were in good enough shape to carry on without any help? I think they got their answer when men started dropping dead. The theory of lead poisoning would have explained this; the reason for their irrational behavior. However, since that has been partially ruled out I think there is much more to their deaths than just this sickness. The cold and sickness because of the cold is the most logic answer I can think of without any medical experience. If one hasn’t grown up in these conditions or been accustomed to such, there is no way they can get dropped off without proper supplies and expect to make it home safely.

  2. I think, first of all, that is fascinating how convincing someone who is confident in their beliefs can be. I know myself that I completely was sold on the lead theory just hearing the scientists speak about it so surely. No matter how wrong it may be, if you are convinced enough of it, you can convince others to come to your way of seeing the situation (I’m sure this is a huge part of some of the conspiracy theories we’ve heard).
    I, too, was surprised when Professor Watrall told us that the lead theory no longer carries a lot of merit. It does make more sense though when looking at the evidence. I could see where it would be hard for enough lead to build up in their systems in such a short amount of time (yet, I am confused how they have not really addressed the skeleton that had a crazy large amount of lead in it). However, if that much lead had built up in their systems over time, why weren’t they having symptoms? Or why wasn’t everyone during that time dying of lead poisoning? I’m sure they used lead in all canned food, not just sea voyages. I do agree with the fact that if they had lead poisoning, they would have most likely been too sick to travel as far as they did. Lead poisoning does cause confusion, but most of its side effects are physical – especially like pain, paralysis, effects on the nervous and muscle systems. It seems like they would have had too much going on with their bodies to be able to survive that long and travel that far.

  3. I was also fascinated with the state of the bodies in the film we watched in class. I always assumed that conditions needed to be extremely cold to preserve bodies. Though it was cold there I thought it would have to be even colder. I also found the evidence of lead poisoning to be quite interesting. I never really heard much about lead poisoning in any history classes so I found it interesting to learn the effects of lead poisoning. It seemed when we learning about the crew having high levels of lead that that was the absolute cause of the crew’s death. I was surprised that it actually was not later into the class. Lead poisoning seemed to make so much sense towards the theory. I did not realize that lead poisoning would have had a greater effect than all the strange things the sailors were already doing like muscle and nerve damage. It does seem more probable to me now that the sailors were just inexperienced. I think that if the sailors did have led poisoning from their everyday lives in Britain then that would mean that every other person in Britain would also have lead poisoning. I also found it really strange why they all died. If the Intuits were the type of people to help explorers why did the Franklin expedition men not ask for help? Maybe at first they thought they could make it and did not need the help. Why though would they not seek out help once they really needed it? Hopefully some day we will find an answer for this mystery.

  4. I enjoyed reading your blog post about the Franklin Expedition. The video did point towards lead as the cause for the deaths of many of the crew members. It made sense to me at the time because lead was not discovered to be a poisonous substance until it had already claimed many lives and science figure out why. When Dr.Wattrall explained in the class that this was not actually the cause of death this really surprised me. Although their levels of lead were high, their lifelong exposure to the poison wasn’t what killed them directly. You did point out that it could have cause damage to their brain and eventually led to their demise. Obviously the crew of this expedition has many hurdles to face, not just lead poisoning. A journey through the same area would be considered dangerous by today’s standards, let alone going through it will little information and technology as they did. The freezing temperatures, lack of resources in the area to stay alive, and loss of leader all crates a situation as you mentioned could be considered doomed. It just goes to show you that getting the full story about things isn’t quite as easy as it may seem. It is very fortunate that the environment of the expedition allowed the bodies to be preserved. The sparse journals were not enough to definitely prove what had happened there. Examining archeological artifacts were the only way to determine what had happened to the crew. Without the preservation of the crew members bodies, the mystery of the Franklin Expedition may have never been solved. Thank you for your post!

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