Scurvy as a factor in the loss of the 1845 Franklin expedition to the Arctic: a reconsideration

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Abstract

In 1845, an expedition, commanded by Sir John Franklin, set out to discover the Northwest Passage. The ships entered the Canadian Arctic, and from September 1846 were beset in ice off King William Island. A note left by the expedition in May 1847 reported all was well, but by April 1848, 24 of the 129 men had died. The ice-locked ships were deserted in April 1848, but the 105 survivors were so weakened that all perished before they could reach safety. The causes of the morbidity and mortality aboard the ships have long been debated, and many commentators have argued that scurvy was an important factor. This study evaluates the historical evidence for the likely effectiveness of anti-scorbutic precautions taken on polar voyages at that time, and investigates whether the skeletal remains associated with the expedition provide evidence for scurvy. Skeletal remains available for study were carefully examined for pathological changes, and lesions potentially consistent with scurvy were subject to histological analysis. Where remains were no longer accessible, use was made of published osteological work. It is argued that the anti-scorbutic measures customarily taken on mid 19th century British naval polar voyages were such that there is no a priori reason to suppose that scurvy should have been a problem prior to the desertion of the ships. The analysis of the skeletal evidence provided little in the way of bony lesions consistent with the disease, and cannot therefore be used to support the presence of scurvy. Factors other than scurvy may been the main causes of morbidity and mortality in the 11 months prior to the desertion of the ships. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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