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According to a recent news report, there is a new "blockbuster theory" that "persuasively refutes" evidence that lead poisoning caused by the tinned food supply undermined the health of the crews of the 1845 British Arctic expedition commanded by Sir John Franklin.

The source for these excited declarations is a paper published in the Journal of the Hakluyt Society, in which an independent British archeologist suggests that the steam-based heating and desalination system aboard Franklin's ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror - and not the tinned foods - was the source of the lead found in the bone and soft tissue of crewmen.

If true - and "if" is the operative word here - the author, William Battersby, would have debunked one element of the groundbreaking research into the fate of the Franklin expedition undertaken by University of Alberta forensic anthropologist Owen Beattie. Mr. Battersby seems rather over-excited at the prospect. He was quoted by Canwest News Service as saying: "I think it's time we put the tinned food back in the cupboard."

Not so fast, Mr. Battersby.

Dr. Beattie and his colleagues spent four field seasons in the Canadian Arctic in the 1980s. First, they recovered and examined the bones of Franklin sailors found on King William Island, where the doomed crewmen died after their ice-bound ships were deserted in 1848. Later, they exhumed and autopsied three bodies preserved in the permafrost of Beechey Island.

Dr. Beattie's method - to apply the tools of forensic science to the enduring historical mysteries associated with the Franklin expedition - yielded important results. The fact that lead poisoning was a serious health factor represents a major breakthrough in our understanding of the tragedy. The effects of lead at the high levels the Franklin crewmen were exposed to can produce convulsions, coma and death. Lead kills.

As it is based on scientific evidence, the role of lead cannot be reasonably disputed and has since been verified by other researchers. Even so, the idea did not sit well with everyone. Decades of historical interpretation and accepted wisdom were suddenly thrown into question. No one, least of all Dr. Beattie, said lead was the only cause of the disaster - in fact, his important discoveries include the first physical evidence for both scurvy and cannibalism, long suspected to be factors in the expedition's final days. Still, it was (mis)interpreted that way.

In subsequent research, Dr. Beattie and his colleagues went a step further: They demonstrated that a major source of the lead was the expedition's tinned food supply (the tins were soldered on the interior seams). It was not malevolent forces of nature (cold, polar bears, hostile natives) that killed the heroic explorers. It was tin cans! This was altogether too much for some enthusiasts, especially in Britain. And it is this aspect of Dr. Beattie's work that is now under attack by Mr. Battersby.

While his paper in the Journal of the Hakluyt Society presents an intriguing theory, based on his careful scrutiny of some schematic drawings and patents, Mr. Battersby acknowledges that he must await the discovery of the wrecks of Erebus and Terror and the inspection of any lead pipes and lead soldering of those pipes for "absolute proof" of his theory.

The Canadian government is currently searching for the missing vessels, so his hope that further evidence can be found is not misplaced. As it stands, however, Mr. Battersby has produced only an interesting piece of conjecture.

But the absence of evidence has not prevented him from going on the offensive. He wrote in his journal article: "It seems highly probable that the Franklin expedition suffered severe lead poisoning not from tinned food but from their ships' water systems." He went further in a news release, declaring: "Tinned food did NOT poison the Franklin expedition."

What Mr. Battersby fails to mention - and the omission is puzzling, given his scholarly aspirations - is the isotope evidence produced by Dr. Beattie and his colleagues, research that was published in the peer-reviewed publications Nature and the Journal of Archaeological Sciences. This research shows that the isotope signatures from lead found in the bodies is the same as that from the lead solder used to seal the tins, meaning essentially that they came from a single geological source, or mine.

It is not enough, then, for Mr. Battersby to produce examples of lead piping or lead solder from the pipe joints. For his theory to hold water, as it were, he must show that any lead in the pipes and joint solder comes from the same geological source as that used to seal the food tins. And even then, the most he could claim is that the heating and desalination system contributed, with the tinned food supply, to the lead exposure of the Franklin crewmen. This would represent a meaningful contribution to our understanding of the disaster. But evidently that would not provide satisfaction enough for Mr. Battersby.

John Geiger, The Globe and Mail's Editorial Board Editor, is the author, with Owen Beattie, of Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition (Greystone Books).


Inspired choices

The Franklin expedition's mysterious disappearance has inspired writers and artists across the years.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Stan Rogers, Gwendolyn MacEwen and the author of the haunting folk ballad Lady Franklin's Lament were all stirred to produce great works.

Recent scientific investigations into the fate of the expedition have revived the interest. British poet Sheenagh Pugh wrote a prize-winning poem titled Envying Owen Beattie. Heavy-metal band Iron Maiden's song Stranger in a Strange Land was inspired by the exhumation of the bodies on Beechey Island, as was singer James Taylor's Frozen Man.

Various novelists have also picked up on the idea. Solomon Gursky Was Here, by Mordecai Richler, features a subplot involving the Franklin expedition. The Terror, a novel by Dan Simmons, The Ice Child, by Elizabeth McGregor, and William T. Vollmann's novel The Rifles were similarly inspired. Margaret Atwood included a short story, Age of Lead, in her collection Wilderness Tips.


Lead's deadly effects

Among the food supplies aboard Sir John Franklin's ships were nearly 8,000 tins of preserved meats, vegetables and soup supplied by a private contractor named Stephan Goldner. Even visual inspection of surviving tins from the expedition reveals lead that drips like candle wax on the interior seams of the tins, in direct contact with the food.

The effects of lead are well known today, but they were little understood in the 1840s. According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, "repeated exposure to moderate-to-high levels can cause encephalopathy (a progressive degeneration of certain parts of the brain). Early symptoms of encephalopathy include dullness, irritability, poor attention span, headache, muscular tremor, loss of memory and hallucinations. More severe symptoms occur at very high exposures and include delirium, lack of co-ordination, convulsions, paralysis, coma and death."

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