Saturday, April 13, 2013

Franklin fate refigured

I trust that my readers – like me – find the image above more fascinating than disgusting, knowing that you are staring into the intact face of a man who died in 1846 (MORE IMAGES HERE). This is 21-year-old Royal Navy petty officer John Shaw Torrington, who joined the ill-fated Franklin expedition which failed in its mission to find the Northwest Passage. In 1980, University of Alberta anthropologist Owen Beattie exhumed Torrington's body from his grave under almost 5' (1.5m) of permafrost on Beechey Island in Canada. He conducted an autopsy which showed that the young man had suffered from tuberculosis and had likely been killed by pneumonia. Lead poisoning, due to eating the food from poorly soldered tins, was also cited as a contributing factor and proposed as a chief cause of the expedition's failure. But now, researchers using new technology* to analyze bone fragments have struck down that theory. Western University chemist Ron Martin and colleagues have proven that the faulty solder seals in the meat cans were not the principal source of lead found in the remains of the Franklin crew members. The exposure would had to have begun long before, and was likely a problem for many 19th c. people. Martin explains, "We'll probably never know what happened to the crew of the Franklin so it will remain one of the great mysteries of Canadian history but our resources fail to support the hypothesis that the lead in the bones came from the tins and I certainly believe that it didn't. The time, from departure to death, just wasn't long enough for lead from the tins to become so dominant throughout all the bones." The Arctic retains one of its biggest secrets, in addition to the well-preserved remains of Torrington and the 2 others lucky enough to have been given a proper burial.
*Synchrotron X-ray fluorescence and laser ablation/mass spectroscopy

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