Comparing the true with the fictional
An anthropologist who examined the bodies of sailors lost in Franklin's Third
Expedition compares his experience with the Arctica story.
Owen Beattie has been investigating the loss of the Third Franklin Expedition
for over fifteen
years. Reports of his team's findings were the inspiration for our fictional
As a forensic anthropologist, my main work is to assist police agencies,
coroners, and medical
examiners in identifying the bodies of people who have died in our own time.
currently have students working on projects relating to Franklin's lost
expedition, and I still have
more than a few research articles to write on what we found.
Testing an Hypothesis
Part of our research involved performing autopsies on the frozen bodies of
of Franklin's expedition. These men died in 1846, less than a year into the
expedition, and were buried on remote Beechey Island. Like the reasons for
the loss of the
expedition, it has always been a mystery why these three men died. We felt
that, using modern
forensic science, we could learn more about the events that led to the
disaster by examining the
bodies of these sailors. What we learned was totally unexpected.
In science, when you approach a puzzle or a mystery to be solved, you develop
based on what is already known, and then you test that hypothesis with an
experiment or the
collection of new evidence. For Franklin's expedition, the old interpretation
explained that it was scurvy and starvation that caused the disaster. What
discovered was that the men were being poisoned by a relatively new
invention: canned food.
Lead in the solder (the material that seals the food tin) was contaminating
the food and
poisoning the men. In the Arctica mystery, I found it very interesting how
the participants sifted
through the evidence and developed new interpretations on what caused the
deaths of the
explorers. That's what we did, too!
The Doctor's Mistake
I feel that the way the explorers act in the Arctica mystery is likely very
accurate. On the Franklin
expedition, the doctors would be anxious to find out why men were sick and
dying. But they did
not yet have sufficient knowledge about lead and lead contamination to have
suspected the tin
food supply. The illnesses would have been a mystery.
Frozen in Time: sailor John Hartnell
25 years of age
died January 4, 1846.
When we were doing the autopsy on John Hartnell, a
25-year-old Able-Bodied Seaman from the Franklin expedition, we found
that he had been autopsied already by the expedition's doctors. We were
able to determine with modern tests that Hartnell was severely poisoned
with lead, and almost certainly died as a result. However, the doctors
in 1846 would have no way of knowing this. During our own autopsy we
could see what the earlier doctors had done as they cut with their
scalpel blades: after opening the body cavities of the chest and
abdomen, they only examined the lungs and nothing else. Why? What they
would have found in Hartnell's lungs is what we found: evidence of
tuberculosis. Almost certainly they would have told themselves:
"Hartnell died of tuberculosis. Case closed; no need to look further."
We know today they were wrong.
This reminded me a lot of the actions of the young doctor in the Arctica
mystery. He would have felt confident about diagnosing what was
happening to the explorers, and would have been anxious to apply the
most current medical theory of the time to make his patients well again.
As you have read, this did not work for him either.
The Possibility of Disease
Another situation in the Arctica mystery brought back some interesting
memories. As we planned our project, and discussed all of the
possibilities that could arise while exhuming the bodies, we realized
that we would have to accommodate an unpleasant possibility: the sailors
may have died of a communicable disease. A virus, like smallpox, could
have survived in the frozen ground, only to be revived by our actions.
Therefore, part of our preparations was a plan for us to remain
quaranteened on Beechey Island if our medical doctor observed any
evidence of a communicable disease.
Beechey Island is a perfect place for such a quaranteen, as it is small
and very isolated. Our project was quite self-sufficient, and we could
have remained there for however long would have been necessary for our
doctor to determine whether we had become infected or not. My own
feeling was that, because there were only three graves, with one of the
men dying over three months after the first two, the likelihood of a
major infectious disease was low. In the Arctica mystery, the situation
was different, and it clearly reminded me of how researchers need to
prepare for every possibility when exploring the unknown.
Connecting to the Past
Finally, I thought that having a living descendant of one of the Arctica
explorers engage in a search for answers was very appropriate and
thought-provoking. Much of our history is made real to us today because
we have direct memories and connections to events in the past. These
connections are through our ancestors. When we went to Beechey Island to
expose the bodies of the three Franklin sailors, I had invited a
descendant of one of the sailor's families to come with us. One day, as
we melted the ice from around the body of John Hartnell, my friend came
face to face with his great-great uncle. History is real.
Department of Anthropology
University of Alberta
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