Arctic Misadventures: The difference of 60 years and a little passion

When we were learning about the Franklin Expedition, I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling of my childhood.  In 2004, my dad dragged my entire family to the Shackleton exhibition at the Van Andel Museum.  I gotta love my dad’s efforts to engage us in history, but really? You are going to bring a 13 year old, two 10 year olds, and a 5 year old to an exhibit, with a bunch of reading and the coolest thing there was a giant block of ice?  Needless to say, my dad bought a shirt and two hats, while the rest of us just wanted out of the Arctic jail cell.  Introspect, the whole situation was quite ironic.  My dad, my family’s Shackleton, having the time of his life while enjoying his passion.  The rest of my family, Shackleton’s crew, stranded in a frozen tundra wanting to go home.  The similarity in the situation is hilarious; Shackleton’s crew stranded for two year and the Nunzio crew stranded for two hours.

Not that I remember much of the Shackleton exhibition (other than the giant ice block), I don’t remember it being a story of tragedy.  When the Franklin expedition was introduced in class, I thought: Oh, no, please don’t make me relive my childhood – I definitely thought we were about to learn about Shackleton.  Spoiler alert, we didn’t.  While learning about it in class, I was so shocked that everyone died and/or magically and tragically disappeared.  This, my friends, is what great fiction novels are made of.  So it got me thinking, how did everyone die?  Lead poisoning? Or TB? Or starvation?  Would that really lead people to cannibalism?     I understand that the weather conditions were harsh but how could they have survived for so long (some it seems to be about 8 years and then all of a sudden, just die)?  It is in human nature to adapt and certainly they would have been able to adapt?  There is quite the cloud of mystery surround this expedition!

How did all of the Franklin men die and not Shackleton’s? First off, Franklin expedition took place in 1850’s and the Shackleton expedition took place in the 1910’s.  That’s a 60 year difference, but where there any advancements that took place to give Shackleton the advantage? Between 1850 and 1910, there were may medical advances from the value of cleanliness to vaccines, but no real advances were made concerning tuberculosis until 1920.  So one of theories of the Franklin Expedition can be ruled out in comparison to Shackleton’s.  As for pneumonia, the major medical advance of penicillin, the first antibiotic,  wasn’t discovered until 1928; so neither expedition had the advantage against pneumonia.  As for scurvy, caused from a Vitamin C deficit diet, scientific testing wasn’t done until after 1911.  It was observed that field soldier never developed scurvy from their poor diet of bread and fat.  And “Eskimos” didn’t get scurvy because their diet consisted of raw liver and muscle.  The main question after learning that raw liver and muscle prevented scurvy, is did the Franklin men not hunt or fish?  They would have had to run out of lead lined food cans, so why not hunt?

Another possible explanation were the harsh arctic conditions, but both expeditions were close to the north/south pole – you don’t get much more arctic than that.  According to my research, the Franklin expedition used the best ships from the Royal Navy.  These ships were the most technologically advanced ships of their time, they even had on board heating system.  I’m not sure that equipment should be considered, both ships became lodged in the ice.     I’m learning toward inexperience and poor leadership.  It’s hard to tell what really happened.  I don’t think there would be a royal expedition to find the northern passage without making sure the best men went on the voyage.  All I know is that Shackleton is know for his leadership and he truly had a passion (or more accurately, an obsessive competitive nature to reach the south pole first) for what he was doing.  We may never know what happened to Franklin’s men, but I like to think that passion is what saved the Shackleton’s expedition.



“Medical Advances Timeline.” Infoplease. Infoplease, n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2015. <>.

“Timeline – TB Alert.” TB Alert. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2015. <>.

Markel, Howard. “The Real Story Behind Penicillin.” PBS. PBS, 27 Sept. 2013. Web. 30 Apr. 2015. <>.

Estes, J. Worth. “Book Review:The History of Scurvy and Vitamin C Kenneth J. Carpenter.” The Quarterly Review of Biology 64.2 (1989): 333-334. Web.

Shackleton, Ernest Henry. South: The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition, 1914-1917. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2001. Print.

Andrews, Evan. “Ship From Doomed Arctic Expedition Found After 170 Years.” A&E Television Networks, 10 Sept. 2014. Web. 30 Apr. 2015. <>. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2015. <>.


One thought on “Arctic Misadventures: The difference of 60 years and a little passion

  1. First off, I just want to say that it’s so awesome that your family was able to go to the Van Andel Museum, I’m definitely jealous! I was a super dork as a kid, and always begged my parents to take me to some of the cool exhibits across Michigan when I was a kid (they always said no…).

    Anways, to return my focus to your blog, I really liked that you had compared the two expeditions: the Franklin Expedition (1845-1850s) and the Shackleton Expedition (1914-1916). Granted, there was a roughly 60-year period between the two expeditions, and surely there were technological and medical advances during this time frame. As you mentioned, however, there were not significant improvements in the diseases that typically applied to seamen of the time (such as scurvy, pneumonia, and tuberculosis).

    In a comparison between these two expeditions, we must acknowledge that in addition to the difference of WHEN they occurred in history, we must factor in the variance of WHERE they occurred. The Shackleton Expedition, with the goal of being the first vessel to cross the Antarctic continent, set sail in Antarctica (in the Southern Hemisphere). In stark contrast, the Franklin Expedition, aimed at travelling through the last portion of the Northwest Passage, with hopes of serving as the first crew to navigate and map the waters, had taken place on the other end of the globe in the Northern Hemisphere.

    As a disclaimer: I have very simplistic understanding of the Shackleton Expedition, simply based on the introductory material that we discussed in my glacial geology course while learning about the Antarctic Ice Sheet, but I will share all that I have learned on the topic. The Shackleton Expedition set off with 28 members, with the vessel reaching as far as 77 degrees south before becoming lodged in pack ice. After a good deal of time has passed, the crew aborts the ship (it eventually sinks) and was stranded in the Arctic for 400-500 days. However, despite all of this, none of the crewmembers perished during the expedition. As for the Franklin Expedition, the entirety of the crew died (129 men, in total).

    I do want to acknowledge your statement, “It is in human nature to adapt and certainly they would have been able to adapt”, yet this simply is not the case. Humans have shown evidence of evolving over time to become better adapted to their environment. However, this occurs on a generational scale; evolution does not occur over the span of two years.

    I suppose that, having discussed the expedition during class, my curiosity stems from the knowledge that the Arctic has an annual mean temperature (close to 0 degrees F) that is much warmer than Antarctica (roughly -60 degrees F)… so why was the Shackleton crew successful in surviving, despite this obstacle? As we had brought up during lecture, lead poisoning might have had an impact, in addition to inexperience and poor leadership. I believe that more research must be conducted on the remains (what little there may be, including written documents and other artifacts, if possible) of the expedition before a sufficient conclusion may be reached.

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