Sunday, 22 February 2009

All about lead...

Primo Levy said that 'lead is the metal of death'. You can't read about the Franklin Expedition for very long without coming across lead. Why?

The Franklin Expedition is unique in modern(ish) British exploration history in that it was the only such Expedition to disappear totally. Two apparently-well equipped Royal Navy exploration vessels, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, set out in 1845 with combined crews of 134, including their commander Sir John Franklin, to attempt to sail through the North West Passage. Five men were sent back from Greenland, after which the two ships and the 129 men remaining on them completely disappeared. Over the 160 plus years since then, quite a lot has been found out about what happened to them. The bodies of three members of the Expedition have been autopsied and some human remains have been found, accounting for about 20% of the men altogether. But the ships have still not been found and much remains mysterious.

It is the total loss of the entire Franklin Expedition, with so many people, that is so anomalous. After all, Scott's last expedition is rightly seen as a tragedy, yet most of the people on the Expedition came back safely - only the five members of the Polar party actually died.

Ever since it became clear that the Expedition was a total loss, people have been trying to find a unique explanation for this apparently unique event. The tinned food which the Expedition took with it was an early candidate for suspicion. The contractor who supplied it definitely supplied the Royal Navy with substandard tinned meat later, and he was an early scapegoat for blame by the authorities in 1850's Britain. In fact the substandard meat he produced was supplied five years after the Franklin Evidence sailed. There is no evidence that the tinned food he supplied the Franklin Expedition was in any way tainted and there's quite a lot of anecdotal evidence that there was nothing wrong with it.

In the last thirty years two new theories have been advanced to try to provide an explanation for the Franklin Expedition disaster which relate to this tinned food. The first is the theory advanced by Scott Cookman in his best-selling book 'Ice Blink' that the provisions were tainted with botulism, which would have progressively and randomly killed off many of the Expedition, crippling it and making their deaths in the Arctic inevitable. The problem with this theory is that tinned food, while not sold in the shops in 1845, was certainly in quite common use on expeditions and long voyages. For example, Colonel Chesney took tinned food on the Euphrates Expedition of 1835-1837, on which James Fitzjames served. Ross and Crozier took tinned food on the Erebus and the Terror, when they sailed to the Antarctic in 1839-1843. So if botulism was such a killer in tinned food, we should expect to find some evidence of it on other expeditions. But we don't.

The second theory related to the tin cans is the lead theory advanced by Owen Beattie and John Geiger and popularised in their book "Frozen in Time". This is based on some epic original research by Owen Beattie. He actually autopsied the bodies of the three Expedition members who died during the winter of 1845-1846 while the Erebus and the Terror were locked in to Beechey Island by the ice. The descriptions of how his team and he carried out this tremendous work is gripping, and everybody owes them a huge debt of thanks for this work. Their most remarkable finding was that all three men had very high levels of lead in their bones and in their soft tissues. It is difficult to come up with an explanation for this, other than that all three men had had a recent and sustained exposure to lead. Given that they had been on the ships for up to nine months, that means the source of this lead must have been on the ships. This very significant finding has been corroborated by analysis of the bone fragments of some Expedition survivors who died on King William Island several years later - certainly not before 1848. Their bones all show evidence of a similar sustained exposure to lead. Together, these individuals account for something like 20% of the entire Expedition, and definitely do not all come from one of the ships (two of the Beechey Island dead were from the Erebus and one from the Terror). So it looks like the men on both ships were exposed to dangerous levels of lead while on the Expedition.

At first sight, the idea that the lead came from the tins looks compelling. You can see lead solder on the remains of tins from the expedition today. It was only when I studied what Dr. K.T.H. Farrer had written about it that I began to have doubts about this theory. If you read his research, notably his paper "Lead and the Last Franklin Expedition" published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, Vol. 20, No. 4. (July 1993), pp. 399-409, you can see that it does not appear to be possible for the men to have absorbed anything like the amount of lead seen by Owen Beattie, from the amount of tinned food they took on the expedition. So if it was the tinned food 'wot did it', both could not be correct: either the measurements of the lead in the bodies were wrong, or Dr. Farrer's findings were wrong. Yet they both seemd to make sense to me.

I read both men's research very carefully and puzzled over this for a long time. I decided I'd try to find out if there might be another, and much greater, source of lead on the ships which nobody else had thought of. I felt that whatever this source was, it had to be unique not just to these ships, but to these ships on this Expedition. Don't forget, the Erebus and the Terror only returned in 1843 from nearly four years exploring in the Antarctic. They took tinned food on that Expedition too, so on this basis tinned food fails the 'unique' test, as well as not containing enough lead. If the contemporary tinned food was so lethal, then surely we should hear of lead poisoning on the 1839-1843 Expedition? And we don't.

What I found is summarised in the paper I wrote: 'Identification of the Probable Source of the Lead Poisoning Observed in Members of the Franklin Expedition', which the Hakluyt Society kindly published in the online Journal of the Hakluyt Society in September 2008. I found that there was a pervasive source of potential lead on the Erebus and the Terror which was unique for this Expedition only. This 'uniqueness' means that for the first time we can fully accept the pathological evidence which Dr. Beattie presented in 'Frozen in Time' without needing to blame the tinned food. And what was this source? Well, I'd direct you to the paper so you can follow my argument and make up your own mind on what you think of the different probabilities.

Don't forget, there is no proof in all of this. Until someone finds the ships and tests their systems, it's all a question of probabilities based on the various pieces of research carried out so far.


  1. With reference to the comments relating to lead in the 'Beechey Island graves' blog entry:

    1) I've read Dr. Beattie's papers and books with great care and his peer-reviewed analysis seems to me to be of a very high standard. If I understand your comments correctly, I'd respectfully suggest that this blog is not the appropriate place to make such allegations.

    2) It is commonly stated that the meat in the cans was tainted but I have searched extensively and found no evidence to support this allegation. Some (not all) meat supplied by Goldner later, in 1850-1851, was tainted but meat supplied earlier does not seem to have been. The Franklin Expedition sampled their supplies in Greenland in July 1845 and reported that they were of very high quality. Richard Cyriax analysed their supplies and suggested that the Expedition would have used an amount of tinned food during the winter of 1845-1846 which approximately equals the number of empty tins found at Beechey Island. Again, this suggests that there was nothing wrong with the tinned supplies.

    3) I am aware that lead was used then in domestic water supplies. But when you look at the life stories of the Franklin Expedition's members, this is unlikely to have been a major source of bone lead for them as so many had been away from home for years! Erebus and Terror were unique in being fitted with distillation plants capable of producing large amounts of fresh water from seawater. There is no proof but it is highly probable that this water would have been high in lead. I'd refer you to some of the scientific analyses I list in my paper for details of how the body responds to lead as it's a complex subject. I'd also refer you to Dr. Keith Farrer's very careful consideration of these points too.

    4) Everything I have suggested is contingent upon Dr. Beattie's work: IF lead was a major source of ill-health on this Expedition, and IF it came from tinned food, then we should expect to see similar symptoms of acute lead poisoning on other Expeditions which used tinned food. Yet, to take to examples, the Ross Expedition of 1839-1843 and the Chesney Expedition of 1835-1837 both used tinned food, but with no signs at all of any lead poisoning. On the other hand there are contemporaneous cases of ships' companies suffering lead poisoning through their water supply, where ships were fitted with lead water tanks, for example.

    5) I did not mean to imply that officers would have 'commandeered' fresh water. The whole domestic economy of the ships for all hands was contingent on a continuous supply of fresh water. A large proportion of the foodstuffs taken by the Expedition required dilution or preparation with fresh water. The ships carried very little biscuit, for example, taking instead flour which had to be baked with fresh water to produce bread or biscuit. There simply wasn't the space to take 'finished' foods. Fitzjames' and Fairholme's letters make it clear that they were aware that they had their own independent source of fresh water (until they ran out of coke). On the other hand officers took their own supplies to supplement the ships' rations and their stewards may have prepared officers' food slightly differently. These apparently small differences in food preparation COULD have led to dramatically different lead intakes. Boiling, for example, concentrates lead in water, so over three years one man who drank tea would accumulate a lot more lead in his system than another who drank cold water.

    I find the whole story of the Franklin Expedition fascinating and I assure you I am very far from losing the will to live! Thank you for taking the time to read my paper and blog, and I hope that collectively we can all in time work towards a better understand of the Franklin tragedy.

  2. It's great to hear from Ernie Coleman on this blog -- while, as he says himself, we don't always agree on every aspect of the Franklin expedition, we have had a great deal of enjoyment from talking through our disagreements.

    So: back to the lead question. Anne Keenleyside's work is important here; by showing that lead levels were higher in soft bones, bones such as the vertabrae in which bone matter is more actively replaced, she makes a very strong case that it would have had to come from exposure during the expedition. Her research on the human remains found at the "boat place" (technically known as NgLj2) shows wide variations, however, in the overall degree of lead in the bones of different individuals (the bones there account for at least 11 persons). Some would have clearly been in the final stages of acute lead poisoning, and almost completely disabled, while others had levels not that much higher than you'd expect from the background exposure of mid-1800's industrial England. The question is to account for this -- how?

    Some have suggested that the increased morality rate of officers (by the Victory Point record, it appears that a far higher proportion of officers had died by that point in 1848) to increased lead intake, either on account of tinned foods, food preparation, or some other source (the water system, adulterated wine or spices). But of course here we are back in the land of conjecture; it's quite possible that the loss of one overland party, with more officers in it than would be the proportion aboard ship, could account for this discrepancy.

    We may have more information before too long, as there is a possibility that definitely identified remains -- known to be those of an officer -- may be available to test for lead. If the levels come back very high, this would suggest that lead could have been the decisive factor. I can't say more at this time, but will certainly be interested to see what is found.

  3. Dear Mr Battersby,

    I ask you to reconsider two things. Firstly, over eight thousand cans of prserved meat were taken by Franklin, plus enough cans of concentrated soup to provide over twenty-thousand pints, yet - in a part of the world where metal is extremely valuable, paticularly to the natives - less than seven hundred have been found. Most of those that have been found were discovered close by the blacksmith's shop on Beechey Island. Where are the rest? The central Arctic should be awash with such cans. The remainder, I suggest, are at the botom of Lancaster Sound.

    Secondly, you are assuming that the preserved meat praised by the officers was manufactured by Goldner. It is much more likely, however, that the officers took their own, privately purchased. supplies (as you suggest, and was - and remains - a commonplace practice). In August 1850, Captain Erasmus Ommanney searched Cape Riley and found 'some empty preserved meat tins, with Donkin's name..'. I believe that it was Donkin's tinned meat to which was being referred.

    I tremble to challenge the inestimable Professor Potter (a prince among men), but I cannot understand his suggestion that some of the men at Erebus Bay were suffering from 'acute lead poisoning'. Surely, a bullet between the eyes is an example of 'acute' lead poisoning? There is, however, a slight possibility that could give rise to such a proposal. The men who died as a result of a native attack at Erebus Bay (oh yes they did - please do not tell me that such a suggestion is 'not appropriate', they admitted it to me) were, almost certainly, suffering from advanced scurvy - and lead in the medication supplied might have led to an instant increase in lead levels. Otherwise, I suggest that it was 'chronic' lead poisoning - if, indeed, it was lead poisoning at all.

    Just one, tiny, suggestion from reading your 'blog' (is that a real word?). One does not, nor ever did, 'join' the Royal Navy - one 'enters'.

    Yrs Aye,
    E C Coleman

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. (Comment edited to remove a spelling mistake)

    Dear Mr Coleman,

    One of the most frustrating issues in connection with the Franklin Expedition is that we know so little about what happened to it, and its men, once they entered Lancaster Sound. You are quite right that few of the tins have been recovered, other than at Beechey Island, but then the empty tins are not the only thing missing: only a tiny percentage of the ships themselves has been recovered. Absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence.

    I'm perfectly open to any ideas about the provisions; all I am suggesting is that there is no clear contemporary evidence that the food Goldner supplied to the Expedition was tainted. Lt. Griffiths, the agent aboard the Baretto Junior, was Sir John Franklin's guest on board HMS Erebus on Thursday 10th July, 1845 for a dinner at which the officers experimented with the ‘preserved’ foods. He said they had been “partaking at the officers’ table of some of the meats which had been opened for trial, as also some of the vegetables. The carrots really were as good as if just removed from the ground; the potatoes also were good and sweet, but certainly with little flavour of the potato.” The day the Baretto Junior sailed, Griffiths again joined Franklin and the officers for dinner on the Erebus. Griffiths asked Charles Osmer, the Purser and senior supplies officer on the Expedition for his opinion on the quality of the provisions. Osmer described them as “very good indeed” adding that “I should like you to tell Mr. Meek [the then Comptroller of Victualling] when you get home”. Griffiths says that this request “elicited an expression of satisfaction from the officers at mess, that they were, in the opinion of their purser, so well supplied.” He reported this in a letter published in “The Times” on 12th January, 1852. Franklin, Crozier and Fitzjames were far from stupid and it would be surprising if they had not sampled the supplies. Griffiths' letter appears to describe an occasion when Goldner's provisions were sampled, rather than when the officers ate their own private supplies.

    The great thing about blogs is that one can discuss almost anything, including of course whether 'blog' is a word or not. I suspect it is not but I'm not sure what the correct moniker for a blog is. Perhaps this is an issue on which we can call on Professor Potter to elucidate? I do have to disagree with you in that the evidence from the bones of the poor men so far analysed do show striking signs of very high lead levels which would indicate poisoning. My paper, which is the ostensible topic of discussion at this point, simply took this evidence and speculated on another source for this lead, the ships' distillation plants. I suggested these were a 'highly probable' source of dietary lead.

    Thank you very much for your correction on the point of 'entering', rather than 'joining', the Royal Navy. I stand corrected. A few years ago I had the great privilege of spending a few days at sea as the guest of a Royal Navy warship on active service and I was educated in many things but, alas, not fully in etiquette.


    William Battersby

  6. Cyriax makes a decent argument that the number of tins found at Beechy is about what would be expected for one winter. Interestingly, Geiger mentions in Frozen In Time, that some tins found at Beechy were bulged and this was presumably due to spoilage.

    The lead found in the bodies of Torington, Hartnell and Braine was shown to be the same lead found in the solder used in the tins. This was done by measuring the ratio of lead isotopes. Beattie and Geiger believed that this makes it highly unlikely the lead came from some other source.

    With respect to the fresh water condenser, my question is, did the lead used in the condenser come from the same source as the lead used in the solder for the tins? I believe this common source would need to be a mine.

    Both McClintock and Schwatka found some of Golder's red tins on KWI. They are among the few pieces of evidence to cast light on what supplies the men took with them in 1848.

    My belief is that the tins used after wintering at Beechy were probably discarded by dumping them on the ice or throwing them into the sea.

    It should be remembered that the majority of the Expedition's provisions were in forms other than tins.

  7. I feel that Cyriax’s research suggests that usage of the tinned food in the winter of 1845-6 was in line with what we would expect if it was of an acceptable quality.

    Beattie and Geiger showed that the lead found in the bodies of Torrington, Hartnell and Braine had a very similar isotopic signature to that found in the solder used in the tins. I would urge you to consider ‘Lead and the Last Franklin Expedition’ by KTH Farrer (Journal of Archaeological Science, Vol. 20, No. 4. (July 1993), pp. 399-409) before you draw any conclusions about the significance of this evidence.

    In my view while Beattie and Geiger have demonstrated a common (British) origin for the lead in the bodies and in the cans, they have not shown that the one was derived from the other. Any lead used in the fresh water condensers could have come from a similar source. Since publishing my paper, I have been told that at that time nearly all the lead used in the UK manufacturing industry came from the Northumberland-Durham district, particularly the mine at Allenheads which was one of the largest in the world then.

  8. Mr Battersby, congratulations on an excellent original piece of work. I wholly agree with your conclusion that the source of the lead was the water system.

    Goldner's cans can be seen in the National Maritime Museum. They are no different to the cans manufactured by others such as Donkin, Hall, and Gamble. It's unlikely that there should be any difference in lead contamination experienced. If Goldner's provisions were putrid (for which there is no evidence) then that would make them even less likely to be a source of the lead intake.

    The 1845 drawing includes a realistic depiction of a fraser stove while the 1839 profile appears to use a symbolic representation perhaps intended to convey a stove with three doors on the side facing the viewer and one door on the other side - less realistic but conveying more information. So instead of the two drawings depicting different stoves they could be the same stove drawn in two different styles.
    An expert on naval draughtsmanship of the period might be able to give a definitive answer.

    James Clark Ross sang the praises of the Sylvester stove so it is surprising that it should be replaced.

    Fresh water is abundant in the arctic during the summer which is the only time the steam engine would have been useful because it's the only time navigation would be possible.

    While in winter quarters, saving labour by distilling seawater instead of collecting snow and ice for melting would not be a priority. On the contrary, Captains such as Back in 1836-7, were faced with the problem of devising exercises for the crew to keep them occupied. This may be the reason for the cairns of shingle filled tins found by Ommanny in 1850.

    The arrangement shown in the 1839 drawings looks like it would melt the snow slowly using ambient heat from the galley. It may be that the 1845 changes were to give the convenience of using steam heat to melt large quantities of snow rapidly on demand.

    The drawings only give an impression, details can only be guessed at. It is not even certain that the vertical supposedly lagged pipe even connects to the tank.

    Here's where it gets really speculative!

    My guess is that the vertical lagged pipe shown in the 1845 drawings connects to a horizontal pipe (not shown) which runs across the ceiling, enters the tank at the top, hangs down, then coils inwardly around the floor of the tank in a flat spiral before exiting the tank in the centre of its floor. The then reappears and is shown in the drawings curving down towards the raised copper (water tank) of the stove.

    This arrangement would make both an excellent still and an excellent snow melter.
    The still would be useful in the long voyage home down the Pacific Ocean with seawater in the tank to cool the distillate. In the arctic the crew could be shovelling snow through the hatch at the same time as the steam is melting it.

    If this arrangement is correct then only melt-water comes out of the tap on the tank and only distilled water comes out of the "large tap" at the back of the stove. This could conceivably provide hot and cold water on demand. Lead would be the obvious material for the pipe and it would contaminate both water outputs. There might be further concentration of the lead in the distillate by boiling in the copper for culinary use.

    Lead solubility is strongly dependant on acidity. Meltwater from pre-industrial arctic ice is acidic with a consistent pH of around 5.5 (Delmas & Gravenhorst, 1983). At this level of acidity water standing in a 1/2 inch old lead pipe has been found to absorb around 1000 microgrammes per litre in one hour (Moore, 1985).

    About half of the provisions were salted meats which had to be steeped for hours to remove the salt. If lead-contaminated water were used then some of the lead might precipitate out of solution as insoluble lead chloride within the meat.

    These suggestions are highly speculative. It would be interesting to try to replicate the proposed water system and the expeditions provisions and then to experiment with victorian cooking methods to get a clearer idea of the lead intake of the expedition crew.

    Best regards

    Peter Carney

  9. On further investigation I find that my brilliant suggestion for a spiral lead-pipe heat-exchanger in the tank for melting snow is a non-starter, despite a very good precedent from the brewing industry. On the distillation argument, I have to say that I can see some serious flaws.

    Best regards

    Peter Carney

  10. Peter,

    There isn't enough clarity in the documents to be certain of all the details of how this system worked. The two basic documents we have are the ships' plans, which I show in detail in my paper, and the original Patents which Fraser lodged with the United Kingdom's Intellectual Property Office.

    The ships' plans do not link the vertical pipes from the Fraser Annular Furnace with the Ice Tank sunk into the deck, although it shows the pipes to within a few feet of the Ice Tank and it's difficult to see where else they could be heading. I think it's safe to assume that these pipes led into the Ice Tank. Perhaps the idea was simply to fill the Ice Tank with snow, put a lid on it and then blow steam into it to melt the snow and at the same time condense the steam? There is no reason why the Ice Tank could NOT have had a condenser inside, as you originally suggested, but of course no evidence either way.

    It does seem clear that the condensers on the Fraser Patent Furnaces in both ships were fitted with much larger outlet taps in 1845 (compared with 1839), suggesting that however the system worked it was designed to produce a significantly larger volume of fresh distilled water in 1845 than in 1839. The Fraser Patent Furnace was basically a sealed system, so I don't think water from different sources could be output via different taps on it

    I love the idea of doing some experimentation! I've been trying to track down a surviving Fraser stove for ages, alas without success. Maybe our friends in Canada will be able to find a couple, with the Erebus and Terror attached? Lastly, you mention some 'serious flaws' in the distillation argument. What do you think these are?