Archaeology Magazine

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Food Cans Exonerated in Franklin Expedition Deaths

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

LONDON, ONTARIO—In 1845, British explorers led by Sir John Franklin set out for the Arctic in two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, only to become icebound. All 128 men were lost—the graves of some of them were eventually discovered on Beechey Island and King William Island. Chemist Ron Martin of the University of Western Ontario re-examined some of the bones of the Franklin expedition officers and crew. It had been thought that solder on poorly made cans of food, or even the lead water pipes in the ships, contributed to the poor health and confusion of the crew. But Martin says that the lead levels in the bones were too high to blame on the expedition’s stores. “The lead distribution is essentially uniform as might be expected from lifetime lead ingestion. There is no evidence for a sudden massive increase in lead during the latter part of any individual’s life,” he said.