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17 August 2017

Inuit Reports Offer New Insight into the Fate of the Franklin Expedition

May 19th 1945 is an infamous day in history. On the morning in question, Sir John Franklin’s long-lost expedition departed England aboard two ships, namely HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. At the age of 59, this was Franklin’s fourth and final expedition; the aim was to successfully traverse the final yet-to-be-navigated section of the Northwest Passage, a famously iceberg-dense sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

By September of that year the expedition had come to a sudden halt as the two ships became trapped in the ice just off King William Island. Not a single member of the crew, comprised of 129 individuals, survived.

Countless scientific studies, search missions and even TV documentaries have over the years attempted to piece together the puzzle of the crew’s ultimate fate, with hypothermia, starvation, lead poisoning, scurvy, and many other equally-nasty diseases being attributed as the eventual cause of their demise. Some evidence even suggests that at least some members of the crew engaged in cannibalistic practices.

We know that by April of 1848, the few remaining crew members had abandoned the remains of their ships and attempted to walk towards the Canadian mainland. Although they never made it, new reports from the Inuit communities who encountered the group are now shining new light on what befell them.

This information comes from a study led by Russell Taichman, a dentistry professor at the University of Michigan, and published to the journal Arctic. The research involved the careful study of records left behind by the Inuits of the time, in which they detailed the malnourished and diseased visage of the crew. Horrifically thin and with many sporting mouths and lips which had turned hard, dry, and black, they were a far cry from the men who left the shores of England a few years earlier.

While not denying that conditions such as scurvy and lead poisoning may have had a highly-negative impact upon the health of the collective crew and contributed at least in some way to their eventual demise, Taichman insists that the research team’s findings point towards a diagnosis of Addison’s disease, and that this was likely what sealed their fate.

A fairly rare condition, Addison’s disease affects the adrenal glands and can cause them to cease functioning entirely. Sufferers have significant trouble with regulating sodium levels and fluid balance, which causes dehydration and a drastic loss of body weight even when adequate food sources are available. To others these individuals will appear unhealthily thin, with darkened skin, lips, and gums; exactly the description given by the Inuit.

“In the old days, the most common reason for Addison’s in this country was TB [tuberculosis],” Taichman said in a statement. “In this country now, it’s immune suppression that leads to Addison’s.

“Scurvy and lead exposure may have contributed to the pathogenesis of Addison’s disease, but the hypothesis is not wholly dependent on these conditions. The tuberculosis-Addison’s hypothesis results in a deeper understanding of one of the greatest mysteries of Arctic exploration.”

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for the written word. Currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor, his time at many UK festivals has taught him the importance of keeping warm.