What Mysterious Illness Plagued Polar Explorer Ernest Shackleton?

The Antarctic adventurer was initially diagnosed with scurvy, but new research suggests he actually suffered from beriberi

Polar explorer Ernest Shackleton
New research suggests the intrepid adventurer's persistent health problems stemmed from beriberi, a disease linked to vitamin B-1 deficiency. Public domain via Library of Congress

Ernest Shackleton won fame in the early 20th century as an intrepid Antarctic adventurer. But on his very first trip to the frozen south, Shackleton’s fellow explorers were forced to send him home on a supply ship due to his ill health. Now, researchers say they’ve identified the culprit behind the medical struggles that plagued the explorer throughout his career.

As Cara Murez reports for HealthDay News, Shackleton most likely suffered not from scurvy—the diagnosis he received at the time—but from beriberi, a condition the results from a deficiency of vitamin B-1, also known as thiamine. The team published its findings in the Journal of Medical Biography.

“Historians have traditionally looked at Shackleton's symptoms in isolation and speculated about their cause,” says lead author Paul Gerard Firth, an anesthesiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, in a statement. “We looked at other explorers on the expedition, as well as members of other early expeditions, and found that some had symptomssuch as breathlessness, neuropathy and effort intolerancesimilar to Shackleton’s that could be attributed to beriberi.”

Shackleton managed to lead numerous physically taxing expeditions despite suffering from episodes of weakness and breathlessness.

“He was, obviously, a tremendous character, in many ways, physically very powerful,” Ian Calder, a retired anesthesiologist who previously co-authored a paper about Shackleton’s health, tells Gemma Tarlach of Atlas Obscura. “The thing that puzzled me was that he always seemed to be conking out.”

Shackleton led rescue efforts that brought all of his crew home safely after the failed Endurance expedition. Frank Hurley / Library of Congress
Ernest Shackleton, pictured prior to 1909 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In 1901, Shackleton joined British Captain Robert Falcon Scotts mission to Antarctica as third lieutenant. With Scott and Edward Wilson, a medical doctor, he traveled by sledge over the Ross Ice Shelf, only to be forced off the trip by his bout of illness.

Firth and his colleagues argue that this setback actually led to Shackleton’s later achievements. Because the British National Antarctic Expedition considered him unfit for duty after the incident, he began raising money to mount his own mission.

“On his second expedition, on the Nimrod, he set out for the South Pole and narrowly failed to get there, but that’s when he became famous,” Firth tells Atlas Obscura. “It was the thiamine deficiency that started him on his path as an independent explorer. If he hadn’t had beriberi he wouldn’t have made his own way, as a leader.”

The Nimrod expedition began in 1907. Shackleton and his group reached the high polar plateau in December 1909, claiming it for England’s Edward VII. The men came within 97 miles of the pole but decided to turn back out of fear of starvation. After a difficult three-month trek back to their base, they returned to Britain, where their achievement was celebrated and Shackleton was knighted as a national hero. His fame only grew when he returned to Antarctica on the Endurance in 1914. Though the ship got stuck on ice and was eventually destroyed, Shackleton’s leadership ensured the entire crew made it home, as Kieran Mulvaney wrote for History.com last year.

In 1922, after setting off on yet another expedition to the Antarctic, Shackleton died of a heart attack at just 47 years old.

In 1922, Shackleton died at age 47 after setting off on his fourth mission to the Antarctic. David Stanley via Flickr under CC BY 2.0
Ernest Shackleton (center) poses alongside fellow Polar explorers Roald Amundsen (left) and Robert Edwin Peary (right) in 1913. Nasjonalbiblioteket via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 2.0

Per HealthDay, Wilson, the doctor on the 1901 expedition, appears to have initially considered beriberi as a possible cause of Shackleton’s illness but eventually diagnosed him with scurvy instead. Later researchers, including Calder, suggested that he had a cardiac abnormality. The new research argues that an underlying cause of problems with the explorer’s heart and breathing was a thiamine deficiency.

“With the benefit of what we now know about nutritional diseases, we believe that beriberi-induced cardiomyopathy—a disease of the heart muscle that makes it difficult for the heart to pump blood—is the correct diagnosis for Ernest Shackletons deteriorating health,” says Firth in the statement.

Like scurvy, beriberi can be found in people who lack fresh food. In the early 20th century, it was mostly associated with the Asian tropics. (Allied soldiers detained in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps commonly suffered from beriberi; according to PBS’ “American Experience,” the debilitating disease derives its name from a Singhalese phrase that translates to “I can’t, I can’t.”)

“Vitamins aren’t discovered until after the first World War, and scurvy, as it was understood in Edwardian times, was quite vaguely defined,” Edward Armston-Sheret, a geographer at Royal Holloway, University of London, who has studied Shackleton's first expedition but was not involved in the new research, tells Atlas Obscura. “If you look back through the sources, it’s not that uncommon for people to say something was scurvy though we’d now call it beriberi.”

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