New research sheds light on fate of the Franklin Expedition

August 24, 2018 | Science, Society

Dr. Treena Swanston, an assistant professor in biological sciences and anthropology at MacEwan, is part of a research team that set out to unravel the historical mystery of the Franklin Expedition and the crew’s ill-fated search for the Northwest Passage.

While a postdoctoral fellow at University of Saskatchewan, Treena worked with a group of academics from five Canadian universities asking one key question: was lead poisoning really the cause of death for Franklin and his crew of 128?

Today, the team published its findings, casting doubt on the long held theory that lead poisoning was the culprit in the tragic death of the sailors.

From 1846-48, two ships under the command of Sir John Franklin were stranded, locked in the ice of the Canadian Arctic, and though over 100 crew members made a desperate attempt to reach the mainland, not one survived. Previous analysis of bone, hair and soft tissue from the men’s remains found elevated lead levels, leading to the popular theory that lead poisoning was the cause of death.

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The research team used a few different approaches to test this theory. One involved comparing the amounts of lead in the bone and dental fragments from the remains of the crew that survived the longest with those who died earlier in the expedition. They also compared the Franklin Expedition samples with those from an entirely separate set of navy personnel from the same time period.

Ultimately, the researchers found similar lead levels among all of the samples they examined – from both periods of the Franklin Expedition and the unrelated navy crew. These findings cast doubt on whether lead was actually the primary cause of death, and open up a whole new set of questions for future researchers to explore.

These findings were published on August 23 in PLOS ONE, a multidisciplinary Open Access journal. Read the full report here

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