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Researchers acquit tins in expedition's fate

by Communications Staff

While we may never know exactly what happened to the 129 men who were part of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated Northwest Passage expedition in 1845, Western researchers have at least debunked some of the potential causes of death – that being lead poisoning.

New research challenges long-held beliefs regarding the demise Franklin and his crew, in particular a landmark study in 1981, led by Owen Beattie, a sinceretired anthropology professor emeritus at the University of Alberta. He concluded while the British crew most likely died of pneumonia and tuberculosis, lead poisoning was also a contributing factor due to the result of poorly soldered tin cans the crew were eating from.

But more than 30 years later, technology and scientific advancements have provided Western researchers, led by Chemistry professor Ron Martin, with evidence that faulty solder seals in tinned meat cans were, in fact, not the principle source of lead found in the remains of the Franklin crew members.

The findings, revealed in the paper titled Pb distribution in bones from the Franklin expedition: synchrotron X-ray fluorescence and laser ablation/mass spectroscopy, were recently published in the journal Applied Physics A: Materials Science and Processing.

“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,” said Martin, the paper’s lead writer and principal investigator.

“The time, from departure to death, just wasn’t long enough for lead from the tins to become so dominant throughout all the bones,” explained Martin


This article appeared in the Spring 2013 edition of Alumni Gazette
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