Lead poisoning did not play a pivotal role in the deaths of crew members from the ill-fated Franklin Expedition of 1845, according to a multi-institution team of scientists.
The project started in 2007 when David Cooper used the Canadian Light Source (CLS) to collect data on the distribution of elements in bone.
He reconnected with former graduate school colleague Tamara Varney, who was at Lakehead University researching British naval sites in the Caribbean. Varney was wondering if rum-related lead poisoning had affected sailors.
“We had an interdisciplinary group of scientists interested in the question of lead poisoning in the historical past, expertise and analytical technology available through the CLS, and a community of researchers in Canada that had access to remains from the Franklin Expedition,” Cooper said in a press release.
Cooper said their team’s data doesn’t support a theory that lead poisoning resulted in physical and/or neurological health, prompting the stranded sailors’ march southward in 1848 to try and reach a Hudson Bay Company post.
The theory arose from previous analyses of the sailors’ bodies, which found they had high levels of lead in their tissue.
Wreckage of the Franklin Expedition ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terro, was discovered in 2014 and 2016 respectively.
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Researchers aimed to see if crew members found on King William Island had more extensively distributed lead than those who died earlier on Beechey Island, where they spent the first winter.
Cooper said data was gathered using the Advanced Photon Source in the United States, which belongs to the University of Saskatchewan. Data showed bones at both Arctic sites contained similar distributions of lead, as well as exposure long before the expedition.
The team also hypothesized that if lead exposure played a key role in the expedition’s failure, the bone samples of the Franklin crew would show more extensive absorption of lead than British sailors of the same period who are buried in Antigua, West Indies.
While there was evidence of lead exposure close to the sailors’ death, there was no consistent evidence of a marked elevation, and the comparative analysis didn’t support that lead within the Franklin sailors was unusual for the time period.
“Our findings don’t mean the crew members weren’t exposed to high levels of lead, and they don’t mean the (Franklin) sailors weren’t impacted,” Cooper said.
“But our findings don’t lend support to massive and sustained lead poisoning that would have compromised them any more than any sailor of that era would have been compromised.”
The findings of the 11-member team were recently published in the journal PLOS ONE.
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