Polar Poisons: Did Botulism Doom the Franklin Expedition?

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22 Scopus citations


In 1845 the Franklin expedition left London with 2 ships and 134 men on board in an attempt to find the route through the Northwest Passage. The ships were built with state-of-the-art technology for their day, but provisioned with supplies from the lowest bidder. After taking on fresh provisions in the Whalefish Islands, off the coast of Greenland, the entire crew was never heard from again. Graves found on remote Beechey Island indicate that three able-bodied seamen died during the first winter. A note written on a ship's log, later found in a cairn, indicate that the expedition's leader, Sir John Franklin, died during the second winter entrapped on the ice, by which time 24 men had also perished. The remaining crew failed in their attempt to walk out of the Arctic by an overland route. In 1981 Owen Beattie, from the University of Alberta, exhumed the remains of the sailors from the three graves on Beechey Island. Elevated lead levels were found in all three sailors. While lead poisoning has been a leading theory of the cause of the crew's deaths, blamed on the crudely tinned provisions the ships carried with them from England, chronic lead exposure may only have weakened the crew, not necessarily killed them. One of three exhumed sailors also had in his intestine the spores of an unspecified Clostridium species. The theory put forth by this article is that Botulism, type E, which is endemic in the Arctic, may have been responsible for their deaths.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)841-847
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Toxicology - Clinical Toxicology
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2003


  • Botulism
  • Franklin expedition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Toxicology
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis


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