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A watercolour painting shows ships from the second Franklin search expedition locked in ice, listed to its side, wintering in Barrow Strait, 1850-1851.

GEORGE FREDERICK McDOUGALL/LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA

Scottish scientists are challenging more than two decades of speculation about the fate of the doomed Franklin expedition with new research that suggests lead may not have been the primary undoing of Sir John Franklin and his crew.

In a paper published in the British journal Polar Record, Keith Millar and Adrian Bowman of the University of New Glasgow and archaeologist William Battersby of London say the levels of lead in bodies recovered from the 1845 voyage may have been normal for the British population of the day and that a proportion of the crew would likely have suffered little, if any, impairment.

That contradicts the accepted wisdom of the past 23 years. In 1990, Canadian researchers said the tests of bone and tissue from the corpses of 18 expedition members provided indisputable proof that the explorers were suffering from chronic lead poisoning. The source of the contaminant was said to be the tins of soup, vegetables and meat that were part of the ships' provisions.

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Dr. Millar, a professor of medical psychology, said Wednesday in a telephone interview that there is no doubt the levels of lead found in the remains of the crew were high relative to those in the average person today. But "in Britain in the 19th century, lead poisoning was not uncommon," Dr. Millar said. "Water was often provided through lead pipes, from lead storage tanks, there was a lot of atmospheric lead, there was a lot of lead in food and so on. So the fact that high levels of lead were found in these sailors in the Arctic, we don't know whether that would have been any different to lead in the British population as a whole."

The fate of the Franklin expedition has been a source of mystery and speculation since the ships – the Erebus and the Terror – disappeared during the quest for the Northwest Passage. Canadian researchers have said there is no doubt that the Franklin's crew would have been suffering both psychologically and neurologically from lead poisoning.

But Dr. Millar and his colleagues say the progress that the expedition made before the ships were abandoned in 1848 suggests lead may not have been as disabling as previously thought.

The bodies of three of Franklin's men who died six months into the voyage on Beechey Island contained significant amounts of lead, which can produce severe colic, constipation, a loss of kidney function and serious psychiatric and intellectual impairment.

But the expedition continued on for 2 1/2 more years. If lead had been a real problem, Dr. Millar said, "it would have been quite impossible, really, for the expedition to have gone on from Beechey Island to head southwest to the Canadian mainland, which is what they did, simply because they wouldn't have had the effective manpower to operate the ships."

John Geiger, co-author of the best-selling booth Frozen in Time – The Fate of the Franklin Expedition and the executive director of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, pointed out that the new study accepts that lead was likely a contributing factor in the fate of the expedition.

Mr. Geiger said he has personally seen the lead solder in the seams of the cans left by Franklin and his men and it would have posed a significant health risk. "There has never been any doubt in my mind that it was a combination of factors," Mr. Geiger said, "of which lead was one."

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