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A re-analysis of the supposed role of lead poisoning in Sir John Franklin's last expedition, 1845–1848

  • Keith Millar (a1), Adrian W. Bowman (a2) and William Battersby (a3)
Abstract

The ‘Franklin expedition’ of 1845 set out to establish a ‘northwest passage’ between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans but ended with the deaths of all 129 crewmen in the grimmest of circumstances. The hypothesis that lead poisoning may have contributed to the disaster is examined by re-analysis of the bone-lead content of seven skeletons in order to model statistically the likely variation in lead burden across the whole crew. Comparison of the estimated lead burdens with present-day data that associates lead with cognitive and physical morbidity suggests that a proportion of the crew may have experienced few or no adverse effects whilst those with higher burdens may have suffered some significant debility. It is unclear whether such debility would have been incapacitating or exceptional for the lead-contaminated environment of nineteenth-century Britain. Whilst lead alone may not have caused the disaster, it is proposed that high levels of lead may have interacted with other factors including dietary insufficiencies and individual constitutional differences to render some, but not all, of the crew more vulnerable to debility in the final throes of the expedition.

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