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Franklin expedition lead exposure: New insights from high resolution confocal x-ray fluorescence imaging of skeletal microstructure

Faculty Advisor




Franklin expedition, lead

Abstract (summary)

In the summer of 1845, under the command of Sir John Franklin, 128 officers and men aboard Royal Navy ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror sailed into Lancaster Sound and entered the waters of Arctic North America. The goal of this expedition was to complete the discovery of a northwest passage by navigating the uncharted area between Barrow Strait and Simpson Strait. Franklin and his crew spent the first winter at Beechey Island, where three crewmen died and were buried. In September 1846, the ships became stranded in ice off the northwest coast of King William Island, where they remained until April 1848. At that time, the crew, reduced to 105, deserted the ships and retreated south along the island’s western and southern shores in a desperate attempt to reach the mainland and via the Back River, to obtain aid at a Hudson’s Bay Company Post. Sadly, not one individual survived. Previous analyses of bone, hair, and soft tissue samples from expedition remains found that crewmembers’ tissues contained elevated lead (Pb) levels, suggesting that Pb poisoning may have contributed to their demise; however, questions remain regarding the timing and degree of exposure and, ultimately, the extent to which the crewmembers may have been impacted. To address this historical question, we investigated three hypotheses. First, if elevated Pb exposure was experienced by the crew during the expedition, we hypothesized that those sailors who survived longer (King William Island vs. Beechey Island) would exhibit more extensive uptake of Pb in their bones and vice versa. Second, we hypothesized that Pb would be elevated in bone microstructural features forming at or near the time of death compared with older tissue. Finally, if Pb exposure played a significant role in the failure of the expedition we hypothesized that bone samples would exhibit evidence of higher and more sustained uptake of Pb than that of a contemporary comparator naval population from the 19th century. To test these hypotheses, we analyzed bone and dental remains of crew members and compared them against samples derived from the Royal Navy cemetery in Antigua. Synchrotron-based high resolution confocal X-ray fluorescence imaging was employed to visualize Pb distribution within bone and tooth microstructures at the micro scale. The data did not support our first hypothesis as Pb distribution within the samples from the two different sites was similar. Evidence of Pb within skeletal microstructural features formed near the time of death lent support to our second hypothesis but consistent evidence of a marked elevation in Pb levels was lacking. Finally, the comparative analysis with the Antigua samples did not support the hypothesis that the Franklin sailors were exposed to an unusually high level of Pb for the time period. Taken all together our skeletal microstructural results do not support the conclusion that Pb played a pivotal role in the loss of Franklin and his crew.

Publication Information

Swanston T, Varney TL, Kozachuk M, Choudhury S, Bewer B, Coulthard I, et al. (2018). Franklin expedition lead exposure: New insights from high resolution confocal x-ray fluorescence imaging of skeletal microstructure. PLoS ONE 13(8): e0202983.


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Attribution (CC BY)