Friday, 17 January 2014

Ottawa Life article

This presents a very clear explanation of the recent Millar, Bowman and Battersby paper.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Millar, Bowman and Battersby - reassessing the evidence for lead poisoning on the Franklin Expedition

Things have been a little quiet on the ‘Franklin front’ lately.  Parks Canada has completed another year of valuable work, but without finding either ship. Little new evidence has emerged but here’s something I hope readers find interesting - an attempt to reassess an important part of the evidence we DO have relating to the Franklin Expedition.

All my adult life it has been axiomatic that the Expedition was brought low by lead poisoning.  Indeed my own initial research into the Expedition was an attempt to find an alternative source for lead poisoning other than from tinned food, BASED ON THIS ASSUMPTION which I took as a fact.

Enter Keith Millar.  I first met Keith about a year ago although we had corresponded and spoken on the phone for longer.  Keith is Professor of Medical Psychology in the Medical School at Glasgow University and Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Health and Wellbeing. He is ideally qualified to assess the medical background of the men Franklin Expedition.  Like so many of us he has caught the ‘Franklin bug’ and become fascinated by trying to unpick the mystery of what happened to those ships and men.  His idea was to look again at what the evidence for lead poisoning actually is, and then to see how it compares with people today who live with a high exposure to lead. Keith realised that this would involve very careful assessment of what might be quite sparse data and invited as co-author his eminent colleague from Glasgow University, Adrian Bowman, who is Professor and Head of Statistics in the School of Mathematics and Statistics at Glasgow University.  The results of this work has been published in ‘Polar Record’ and the link to the paper is here.

So what does the paper say?

It surprised me when Keith dug into the evidence to find that there is a lot less than I had thought.  I knew the three men buried at King William Island had been found to have lead in their hair, bone and soft tissue.  But it turns out that the bones recovered from King William Island, and analysed for lead, represent many fewer individuals than I had realised – perhaps as few as seven men.  Ten men still represent a reasonable sample of those who died on the Expedition, but it is a smaller sample than I had realised.

Another point was a bit of an eye-opener to me.  I’ve always know that lead poisons you when it is in your bloodstream and soft tissue, and not in your bones.  I’d understood from Beattie and Geiger’s ‘Frozen in Time’ that the soft tissue and hair samples taken from the Beechey Island bodies proved that lead poisoning there had been ‘catastrophic’ for the men.  But Keith’s careful assessment of their actual raw data shows that the evidence for this is less clear, and a lot less certain, than I had previously understood. 

Although less extensive and compelling than I had realised, there IS evidence for both a short term (from hair and soft tissue) and a long term (in bone) exposure to lead.  But how much of this lead uptake took place on the Expedition and how much was in the men before they left England? The problem with answering this question is that Keith could find no practical control population to compare the Franklin bones with, so we really can’t be sure.  So if the Franklin men were ‘zombified’ with lead (an allegation I have seen) then who is to say that my great-great grandparents, and the rest of the population living in England then, weren’t 'zombified' as well? We know Victorian society was intimately exposed to lead – in pipes, wallpaper, toys, make-up, etc.  The problem is that until someone can come up with control samples, we simply don’t know whether Franklin’s men had any more lead in them that the rest of the population.

So what can the evidence we DO have tell us? What Keith does is ‘maps’ the evidence for lead in the men’s bones which IS secure against similar hard evidence from people alive today who we know have been heavily exposed to lead.  This is where Adrian Bowman comes in with his painstaking analysis of this data. 

Keith used data for the amount of lead in the men’s tibias (shinbones) because this can be compared with statistics for tibia-lead in present day populations.  But the tibias of the three men who were buried on Beechey Island were not sampled, and we only actually have four tibia samples from King William Island.  As I said before, when we get down to serious analysis we find we have much less evidence that we thought.  Any results must be fairly tentative because they are based on a small sample.  If just one more tibia of a Franklin sailor was to be found and analysed, it would increase the size of the sample by 25%!
Adrian was able to ‘map’ the distribution of these four men’s samples against five comparable studies of present day people which Keith was able to locate. Keith as a clinician is ideally placed to interpret this.  He reads this evidence as suggesting that there was probably quite a wide variation both in the men’s exposure to lead and in the effect it had on them.  Some of the men may have been affected to the point of being declared sick, yet others almost certainly experienced absolutely no ill effects at all. 

That may sound like a fairly limited conclusion but I actually think it is extremely important.  This paper shows that to conclude that the men of the Erebus and Terror were ‘zombified’ by lead poisoning is completely untenable – the evidence does not exist.  Similarly the suggestion that their officers’ decision making abilities must have been impaired by lead poisoning – something I have seen quite often stated as a fact - is equally untenable.  It MIGHT have happened, but there is no clear proof. Because we have no ‘control’ data, and we now know that the ships were equipped and provisioned no differently from other ships of the time, we have no evidence that lead was any more of a problem on this voyage than on others.  No one says that the crew of the Investigator were ‘zombified’ by lead, or that Robert McClure’s decision making was impaired by lead. Yet McClure and his men could well have operated with exactly the same lead in them that Franklin’s men had. 

And the experience of the Investigator is also salutary in another respect.  Their ship was beset with just as much finality as the Erebus and Terror, and it was only with the most remarkable luck that the men were rescued.  Luck, in other words, played a more important role in their fate than lead.  It seems likely that ice and weather conditions at the time of the Franklin Expedition were especially challenging. This is something which is discussed in a very interesting 1985 paper "Arctic Climate during the Franklin era" by Alt, Koerner, Fisher and Bourgeois which Keith drew my attention to recently. The Franklin Expedition had no ability to forecast weather or ice conditions and such factors were completely outside their control.  Perhaps if they had had the luck of McClure some of them might just have made it though the North West Passage? Maybe emerging in their boats as Sir John Ross had done in 1833, and as some of Franklin's officers suspected they would, too, before they even sailed from Greenhithe!  Again, this is a matter of luck rather than lead. 

The basic problem, and the basic mystery, of Franklin’s Expedition is that no one lived to tell the tale, and none of their written records have survived to be read. So we simply don’t know what happened. The whole ‘lead’ saga is a valiant effort to extract as much knowledge as we can from very little evidence.  Probably in the past we have all been guilty (me as much as anyone) of trying to squeeze more information from the limited evidence that we have than is justified. So until we can read more of what the men wrote (more about that in a future post), or until Parks Canada can locate a ship, we will probably have to resist the temptation to over-interpret such limited data.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

'Building Terror' - some great analysis here

HMS Terror as seen in the Arctic, 1836
John Smith contacted Peter Carney and me recently.

He's a ship modeller who is striving to create an accurate museum-quality model of HMS Terror as she was fitted in 1845 for the Franklin Expedition.  As Peter and I did, he has discovered that the plans of the Terror, as held at the National Maritime Museum, can be confusing.  In 1845 the Terror was over 20 years old and had undergone several extensive processes of modification, as well as being almost wrecked off the coast of Portugal in 1828.  In addition to that, some of the plans have been reworked in different coloured inks at different times (and also in pencil, as Mr. Smith has spotted).  This has always made their understanding difficult, especially for people who only buy monochrome copies of the plans!

I commend to you Mr. Smith's blog 'Building Terror' here.  He presents some beautiful plans of his own drawn from his own research as well as a very interesting commentary on how he has developed them.

I'll certainly be following his blog and I am sure when it emerges his model will be a magnificent tribute to the lost Franklin Expedition as well as a great step forwards in scholarship.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Commemorating the 200th Anniversary of the birth of Captain James Fitzjames, RN

This coming Saturday, 27th July, 2013, will mark the 200th birthday of Captain James, Fitzjames, RN, who was lost on the Franklin Expedition.  I felt this anniversary ought to be marked.
Yesterday a small group of Captain Fitzjames’ family, members of the families of other men lost on the Franklin Expedition and some well-wishers gathered at the memorial to the Franklin Expedition at Waterloo Place in London SW1.  Here we joined by Mr. Gordon Campbell, Canada's High Commissioner, who had very kindly agreed to take time out from his schedule to lay wreath in memory of Captain Fitzjames.  So for the first time in many, many years, in fact probably for the first time since the nineteenth century, James Fitzjames’ birth was marked with due celebration. 

The weather was beautiful and in this picture you can see Mr. Campbell, the Canadian High Commissioner, making his witty and well-received speech, before laying the wreath.

The second photograph is a remarkable one as it shows the Canadian High Commissioner, having laid the wreath, flanked by the next of kin of the two sides of Captain James Fitzjames's family, On the left (his right) stands Anne Coningham and on the right (his left) Sylvia Wright (nee McClintock).

Finally, it was my great privilege to thank Mr Campbell, the Canadian High Commissioner, and present him with a copy of the biography of Captain James Fitzjames.

Never let anyone underestimate the true hospitality of Canada!  The High Commissioner then invited us to the High Commission to see their Exhibition of Inuit Art (STRONGLY recommended) where drinks were laid on for the thirsty celebrants.  I felt profoundly moved that the remarkable figure of James Fitzjames has been commemorated in this way.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Remembering the Franklin Expedition at Christmas

It’s months since I have posted thoughts on the Franklin Expedition and, strangely, it is Christmas which has triggered this latest essay.  Why? Because ever since the first Christmas of 1845, when apparently 'all was well', Christmas has always been a time when minds cast back to the lost ships and men with a poignancy undimmed by time. 

The Expedition sailed on 19th May 1845 and, though it seems absurd to us knowing the impossibility of taking sailing ships through the North West Passage under the then prevailing climatological conditions, optimists at the time thought the ships might be ‘through’ and in the Pacific by Christmas 1845.  James Fitzjames had heard this opinion and even expressed the hope that they would spend at least one winter in the ice.  How bitterly he must have come to regret that wish!  Incidentally, Fitzjames knew that his promotion to Captain would be made on 31st December 1845, and a note of this is indeed the very last entry in the Erebus' contemporary records at the Admiralty.

So although no news of a rapid transit of the Passage had been received by the end of 1845, waiting friends and relatives of Expedition members would have felt no qualms.  And this is particularly poignant since the 1840’s and 1850’s were a time when the celebration of Christmas in Britain became recognizably ‘modern’.  Dickens’ ‘Christmas Carol’ had recently been published, in December 1843, while the 1840’s saw the acceptance by British families of such modern practices as putting up Christmas trees and exchanging Christmas cards.  Christmas for the waiting families must have been very much a time when they would come together to remember their absent menfolk.  And with each passing Christmas they must have looked back on this first as a happy time.

But how was that first Christmas of 1845 at Beechey Island for the Expedition itself?  Some pointers suggest that even this first Christmas in the ice would have been an unsettling time.  Why? 

A first, comparatively minor, point is that the Expedition probably did not have their expected full Christmas treat.  We can surmise this from the eyewitness account of Lt. Griffiths, the Admiralty’s agent on the Expedition’s transport Barretto Junior. Lt. Griffiths’ ship had transported live oxen for the Expedition from Orkney to Disko Bay in Greenland.  The oxen that survived the voyage across the stormy Atlantic were slaughtered there and the beef hung in the rigging to air-dry.  Franklin himself told Griffiths that he intended some of this at least to provide his men’s Christmas dinner. But before Griffiths left the beef had started to deteriorate in the unseasonally mild summer of 1845 in Baffin Bay and Grffiths witnessed the beef being consumed then before it became unfit to eat.  So in all probability Franklin’s plan for a morale-boosting dinner of old English (in fact Orkney) beef was thwarted.  Perhaps this doesn't matter, but we know from earlier and subsequent Expeditions that special occasions like this were important and happy events and the loss of the promised beef might have put a dampener on celebrations. 

Much more sinister is that by Christmas 1845 at least one man in each ships’ company was very sick and close to death.  John  Torrington of HMS Terror passed away on New Years’ Day 1846 with John Hartnell of HMS Erebus dying three days later.  We know this from their graves, still at Beechey Island today. Owen Beattie’s autopsies of their bodies a century and a half later revealed that both men died a lingering death.  So their unhappy existences must have cast a pall over both ships.  And all the medical evidence that we have suggests that both ships companies were also suffering at least to some extent from lead poisoning.  One of the symptoms of lead poisoning is depression. Unless or until records from the Expedition are found, we cannot know what the atmosphere was like on the Terror and Erebus that first Christmas.  But we do know what it was like on the Terror when she wintered in the ice just nine years earlier in 1836 - on George Back’s Expedition. Back’s Terror then was the same ship on which John Torrington lay dying at Christmas 1845. 

Back has left us an account of that Christmas, describing how on January 13th 1837 “a sailor, named Graham Walker, had been for some time under the care of the medical gentlemen who, at first, had good grounds for supposing that little was the matter with him. However, he was treated as a sick man; and for want of exercise, or by some means or other, he soon contrived to render himself so in earnest. Unhappily the symptoms shortly after became scorbutic, and the man being of melancholic temperament, and utterly incapable of being roused or cheered, grew daily worse. Yet his appetite continued good until within the last few days, and even on these he always ate some nourishing diet. This day, however, at 9 p m. he died without suffering, and indeed so calmly, that those in attendance were unconscious of the moment of his departure. Such visitations are always melancholy, and it was natural that in our case a more than ordinary impression should be made. Isolated as we were from our fellow-creatures, and at the mercy of a power over which we had no control, who could help feeling that his hour also might shortly come? At 10 am on the 14th, the officers and crew of H.M.S. performed the last mournful duties towards their shipmate. The body was conveyed on a sledge to the extremity of the floe, where a grave had been dug through the ice; and the solemn and affecting service for the dead having been read, the remains were committed to the deep.”

It is interesting that Back described the melancholic nature of the unfortunate Graham Walker in this rather unsympathetic account.  Back describes his symptoms as 'scorbutic', but was this scurvy?  He does not mention the word, and his account makes it clear that the men were receiving fresh food.  Perhaps he was suffering from the lead-poisoning which we know afflicted his counterparts in the Franklin Expedition on this same ship nine years later? And sadly this was not the only symptom of melancholy on Back’s Expedition.  Back was clearly deeply troubled by the very low morale on HMS Terror that year and unable to explain it.  His complete passage describing Christmas 1836 on HMS Terror reads as follows:

“Sailors, it is proverbial, are naturally light hearted, and have in general a great flow of animal spirits; but in this respect ours most assuredly differed from their brother tars. Whether this arose from the services in which they had been brought up, or from their never having been subject to the salutary influence of naval discipline, I know not, but certainly their want of cheerfulness was not attributable to any lack of example or encouragement on the part of the officers. For about six hours every day except Sundays, they were kept at some easy work on the ice, as was absolutely requisite for their health ; but it was in vain that we endeavoured to lead them into the wholesome habit of amusing themselves with games or dancing, to cheer their spirits, and while away the long hours of our winter evenings. The most trivial cold or other complaint induced despondency, and an attack in the joints of the legs and limbs attended with extravasation of blood, for which it may be remarked there was some difficulty in accounting, excited the most discouraging apprehensions. Under these circumstances, I was not a little delighted when informed that they had contrived, in imitation of the officers, to get up a play, and had appointed Christmas Eve for its performance. In due time two farces were announced for representation, the "First Floor" and the “Benevolent Tar”; and these went off with unbounded applause in a stifling atmosphere between decks, though outside the thermometer stood at -30°. Christmas Day which succeeded, was duly and religiously observed; neither were the personal comforts, more majorum, neglected, for, as we were on two thirds' allowance, I directed a double portion to be served of all but spirits, and thus gave the men a treat without intoxication. The officers also dined together; and, among other luxuries which the providence of the caterer had furnished, was a haunch of the reindeer, shot by Mr. Gore.”

Here we see an absolute proxy for all Royal Naval Arctic or Antarctic Christmas celebrations, from Parry via Nares to Scott: the feast, the theatricals, the involvement of both officers and the ‘lower deck’. Although the gloomy and depressive atmosphere of the ship’s company on HMS Terror in 1836, and the alarming symptoms of ‘lassitude', 'despondency’ and the ‘attack in the joints of the legs and limbs attended with extravasation of blood’ sound different and seem to represent something alarming for which, as Back said, ‘there was some difficulty in accounting’.

Back’s description of Christmas on HMS Terror in 1836 does perhaps give us an accurate feel for what that first Christmas at Beechey Island was like for the Franklin Expedition in 1845.  Even down to ‘Mr. Gore’ - the same Lt. Graham Gore of the Franklin Expedition whose hunting prowess seems to have been high. Perhaps he also brought the Christmas fare in for Franklin’s men as he had for Back in 1836? Sadly, however ‘despondent’ the men felt at the time, this was most likely the best Christmas they had – things most likely can only have got worse.

At home their families do not seem to have expected them for several years – ‘up to five years’ seems to have been thought of as the length of time the Expedition could last unsupported.  So Christmas in 1850 for their families must have been a sad affair. Graham Gore’s family in Australia later erected a monument to him on which they gave his date of death as circa 1850 – obviously before news of McClintock’s recovery of the ‘Victory Point’ note reached them.  And we find that a ‘James Fitzjames’ made a donation to the fund to build a monument to commemorate Sir John Barrow at Ulverston as late as 1851.  Presumably his friend John Barrow junior had not entirely given up hope that Fitzjames might yet emerge from the Arctic?

In 1850 Charles Dickens, in many ways the populariser of the Victorian tradition of Christmas, evoked the possibility that the Franklin Expedition might still be celebrating Christmas aboard their ships somewhere, as a way to link them with the experiences of his readers.  In Household Words Volume 5, published in 1851 (page 179) he expressed the hope that ‘some commemoration of Christmas may perhaps take place in the Frozen Regions’.  Perhaps, he ended this canter of optimistic fantasy, ‘we may yet hope to see the crews of the ‘Erebus’ and the ‘Terror’ once more ready with a yarn about Christmas at the Pole, to help out a Christmas in England’.  This fascinating passage illustrates how strong the links between the lost Expedition, their loved ones and the general public became at Christmas.  Ironically Dickens is now mostly linked to the Franklin Expedition because of his disgraceful and racist propagandising against the Inuit peoples among whom the Expedition foundered, some of whom were possibly at the very time he was writing doing their best to help save the last members of the Expedition.  But that is another story.

So while we all celebrate our different Christmas’ in 2012, let’s spare a thought and a prayer for Franklin’s lost souls and hope, as generations have done over the last 165 years, that more may still be uncovered to help us understand their fate. 

Friday, 17 August 2012

How much longer can the Search go on...?

In 1848 Captain Sir James Clark Ross sailed for the Arctic with the two ships HMS Investigator and HMS Enterprise.  His mission was to resupply and relieve the Expedition under his old friend Captain Sir John Franklin, which had sailed three years before and had yet to return.

He found no trace of the Franklin Expedition and, as the world knows, no one else has since.  Ross' old friend Sir John and his 128 shipmates disappeared.  Unwittingly, Ross had started the longest and largest search and rescue mission in the history of humanity - one which continues to this day, 164 years later.

But the search continues and I was heartened to see this story here by the well-informed Canadian journalist Randy Boswell that "an announcement about resuming the search for Franklin’s lost ships could come during next week’s visit to the Arctic by Prime Minister Stephen Harper". Boswell refers to "Parks Canada’s 2010 discovery of the Investigator near Banks Island in the northwest corner of Arctic Canada [which] fuelled excitement ... that similar searches might soon lead the agency’s archaeologists to Franklin’s ships."

It really has been long enough for this mystery to remain - let us all hope that archaeology can eventually bring some sort of closure to this long-running tragedy.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

"Stars over Ice" - worth following

I haven't posted or a while. I am working pretty hard in business at the moment, and my primary research focus is piecing together the full story of James Fitzjames' mother, and of her family.  Believe me it is a remarkable story and when I have it all, with all the proof I need, I will publish it in the Kindle second edition of my book.  But I am keeping quiet until that has been completed.

In the meantime the global community of people who care about the Franklin Expedition and their terrible fate continues to grow - something which heartens me enormously.

A new blog has appeared: "Stars over Ice" by .  The link is here

I have never had the privilege of meeting 'Jaeschylus' but she has always been an intelligent and perceptive commentator on my blogs and others and I commend this blog to you all.  I am sure that she will add usefully to our knowledge.