A Dentist Weighs in On What Really Doomed the Franklin Expedition

Addison’s disease may have blackened the explorers’ gums and hastened their demise, proposes a history-obsessed dentistry professor

One of the best-known paintings of the doomed Franklin expedition. Full title: "They forged the last link with their lives: HMS ‘Erebus’ and ‘Terror’, 1849–1850." W. Thomas Smith / National Maritime Museum

Nearly two centuries ago, 129 bold adventurers led by explorer Sir John Franklin set out west from the shores of England, seeking an elusive Northwest Passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific through the icebound waters of the Arctic. They would never return.

With reinforced steam-powered ships and roughly three years’ worth of food supplies, the Franklin Expedition seemed the best bet to find the fabled passageway, if indeed it did exist. But after a stop in Greenland on their way across the Arctic Ocean, all contact was lost with the two ships and their crews. England sent out dozens of search parties, which ultimately uncovered scant remains and left many unanswered questions.

In the years since, the intrigue and speculation surrounding the doomed voyage has inspired works of literature from Charles Dickens’ play The Frozen Deep to Jules Verne's The Adventures of Captain Hatteras. Canadian writer Margaret Atwood identified the expedition as a touchstone for tragedy in her country's cultural memory, akin to the doomed Roanoke Expedition or the infamous Donner Party. Now, a new analysis of limited historical records suggest that some of the Franklin crew may have suffered from a disease that blackened their gums and may ultimately led to their tragic demise.

For Russell Taichman, a Canadian dentist who grew up with a history-obsessed father, the cultural mythos of the Franklin Expedition loomed large in his mind from a young age. His family would travel up north from Toronto for vacations, venturing near the areas where the ships of the Franklin Expedition were believed to have gotten trapped in ice, forcing the crew to hike on foot to their dooms. Taichman went on to become a dentistry professor at the University of Michigan, but he never lost interest in this particular historical mystery.

Many theories have been put forth about what ultimately afflicted and killed the Franklin Expedition, with various explanations including starvation (researchers have found evidence of cannibalism among the crew), tuberculosis, pneumonia and even lead poisoning. Some of these conclusions have been based on the analysis of bodies found mummified in the ice, but those were only a few of the 129-member crew who died early in the trip, so scholars have otherwise been forced to scrutinize inconsistent clues from interviews with the Inuit people who witnessed the Franklin Expedition passing through their homes on their last voyage firsthand.

While reading summaries of these testimonies recorded during a rescue expedition decades after the Franklin Expedition in his leisure time, Taichman remembers one description that stood out to him. Around 1879, several Inuits recalled to the crew of the American explorer Frederick Schwatka that they had seen the emaciated remnants of the crew dragging boats from one of the stranded ships 40 years earlier. One memorable detail about the men’s appearance, they recalled, was that "some of their mouths were hard and dry and black."

"It doesn't sound like a normal dental thing," Taichman recalled of his reaction to that description. Despite not having a formal training in history, he decided to combine his dental expertise with his historical passion and dig further into this perplexing problem.

This description of the mouths of the Franklin Expedition crew has often been attributed to lead or poisoning or scurvy, a disease stemming from Vitamin C deficiency that causes fatigue, swollen gums and joint pain, and was often experienced by sailors in the days before easy refrigeration. Taichman, in collaboration with a librarian at the University of Michigan and a longtime amateur archaeologist in Canada, decided to cross-reference these symptoms against possible causes them starting about three years ago.

In a study published earlier this year in the multidisciplinary scientific journal Arctic, Taichman searched through more than 1,700 medical studies to land on a possible cause for this mysterious oral development. "Unbelievably, scurvy didn't come up that much," Taichman says. But one thing did: Addison's disease, a rare disorder caused when the body's adrenal glands don't produce enough of the hormone cortisol.

Addison’s can cause weight loss, low blood pressure, nausea, vomiting and, most notably, a darkening of the skin and other body tissues. Today this condition is rare, affecting only a few million people worldwide, and can be easily treated with supplements of steroids (John F. Kennedy lived most of his life with it). But if left untreated, Addison's can contribute to a slow death from infection or adrenal failure. Moreover, in the 19th century, it Addison’s disease was harder to treat, much less diagnose.

In those times, and in some developing countries today, a common cause for Addison's was tuberculosis. An analysis of mummified remains of three crew members found traces of early tuberculosis, Taichman noted, so it's not a stretch to predict that others would've caught the disease in these cold, cramped and stressful conditions. Moreover, the disease can cause dehydration and the inability to gain weight, which could have contributed to the emaciated look of the Franklin Expedition survivors, in addition to starvation.

Yet Taichman is quick to caution that this is at best an educated guess. Many other explanations could be true, including scurvy and lead poisoning, as well as even more basic causes such as dehydration or widespread tooth decay. After all, "the Inuit were describing something they saw several years later and through an interpreter," he says. "There's a lot of room for error." For instance, he notes that one report he came across from Schwatka's expedition added the word "bleeding" to the description of the sailors' mouths, a symptom more associated with scurvy than Addison's disease.

To try to untangle the mystery further, Taichman is now combing through various Inuit testimonies related to the long-sought burial place of Franklin himself, which were recorded by the rescue voyage of explorer Charles Francis Hall. These records exist in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution, and many of them have yet to be published.

Taichman is only the latest scholar to speculate about the fate of the Franklin Expedition, but his work has met praise from some of his predecessors. His analysis, with the caveats he included, still represents a very plausible theory, says Keith Millar, a University of Glasgow psychologist who has helped analyze other mid-19th century sea voyages to document what conditions could have affected the Franklin Expedition's health.

Millar was particularly impressed with Taichman's thorough review of the medical literature to document various possible explanations for the Inuit descriptions. "It is the first time that such an approach has been applied in the many published attempts to establish the extent to which various conditions … may have influenced the fate of the expedition," Millar said.

Despite its popular support, Millar also disagrees strongly with the lead poisoning hypothesis. His own study found no such poisoning among other crews in the same era, who were using the same kinds of food supplies that allegedly poisoned the Franklin Expedition. "There is no objective evidence that Franklin’s crew suffered the behavioral, neurological and gastrointestinal effects of lead poisoning," Millar said.

Overall, Millar says, Taichman correctly points out that it was probably multiple health problems afflicting the Franklin Expedition all at the same time, dooming them to failure and death. 

Editor's Note, August 23, 2017: This piece initially misstated that the Franklin Expedition helped inspire Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; in fact, Frankenstein was first published in 1818.

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