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Death mask. A facial reconstruction from a skeleton in the Franklin Memorial helped researchers identify it as physician Harry Goodsir.

Adapted from S. Mays et al., Journal of Archaeological Science, 38 (2011)

Skeleton May Help Solve Mystery of Doomed Franklin Expedition

In April of 1848, while sitting in his quarters aboard the ice-encased HMS Terror in the Canadian Arctic, Captain Francis Crozier made the fateful decision of a desperate man. His expedition's commander, John Franklin, was dead, the explorers had failed to find the Northwest Passage, and the sea ice that had held Terror and HMS Erebus captive for 20 months seemed unlikely to release the ships anytime soon. The men should have had plenty of provisions left, but for reasons that remain a mystery, Crozier decided to take what remained of his crew and abandon the ships, trekking across Northern Canada in search of food. No one survived.

Twenty-five years later, an Inuit guide led explorers to a spot on King William Island more than 200 kilometers from where the ships are believed to be encased, where a shallow grave contained the complete skeleton of an officer: one of the Franklin expedition's casualties. The remains were sent home to the United Kingdom, where the renowned biologist Thomas Henry Huxley identified them as Lieutenant Henry Le Vesconte.

Now, more than a century later, a new forensic analysis of the skeleton—which had been buried in the Franklin Memorial in Greenwich, U.K.—suggests that it actually belongs to the expedition's physician and scientist, Harry Goodsir and that it may hold clues to what compelled the crew to abandon their ships.

"There's something behind it, the mystery, the tragedy, that caught my imagination," says human skeletal biologist Simon Mays of English Heritage in Portsmouth, U.K., who read about the doomed Franklin Expedition as a child. When the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, in London was opened to be renovated and the body was exhumed, Mays and colleagues jumped at the chance to examine it.

At first, the researchers didn't question Huxley's identification of the man. Huxley had pointed out salient characteristics of the skeleton, such as a gold tooth that identified him as upper class and a protuberant chin like Le Vesconte's. But when Mays and colleagues examined the enamel of one of the man's teeth, employing a chemical analysis technique that measures the concentration of strontium and oxygen isotopes in bone and matches them to the water supply of a region, they found that the strontium-oxygen ratio suggested that the unfortunate officer had not lived in Devon, as Le Vesconte had, but had more likely come from northern Britain. Goodsir, from Scotland, seems a more likely candidate and was of an appropriate age and height.

When the researchers performed a facial reconstruction from the skull, they found a deep groove under the lip that resembled a daguerreotype of Goodsir. In their paper published this month in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the authors concede that the identification is uncertain: Several officers were from northern England or Scotland, and facial reconstruction is a shaky technique.

But what killed the doctor? The previous diagnosis had been scurvy, caused by a lack of vitamin C, but Mays thinks this is unlikely because sailors knew that danger well and how to prevent it. What's more, Goodsir's skeleton doesn't show the buildup of new bone on the surface that would indicate internal bleeding from scurvy, nor does the hair clinging to his garments show the "corkscrew" effect that occurs when proteins break down as a result of the disease.

"Something was wrong, and it seems it must be something they didn't understand," Mays says. "Something was causing unprecedented death" before the crew ever left their ships in search of food. Given his burial, it seems unlikely Goodsir and the others were already starving to death, and the researchers' analysis of gnaw marks on his bones found them to be from an Arctic fox, not from starving shipmates. Mays hoped to find clues as to what killed him, which might also indicate what drove the expedition to search for food.

Other historians have suggested that the crew succumbed to lead poisoning, caused either by poor canning techniques that contaminated the voyage's food or by lead from their seawater filtering apparatus. Mays thinks this is a more likely scenario, but he says it's difficult to diagnose because everyone in Victorian Britain had high levels of lead in their bodies.

Bioarchaeologist Anne Keenleyside of Trent University in Canada calls the analysis "superb" and says it is further evidence that scurvy was not the sole cause of death on the voyage. The strontium-oxygen technique, she writes in an e-mail, appears to be a valuable tool for excluding individuals when identifying remains.

Mays is now examining other well-preserved Victorian skeletons to establish a baseline level of lead. He also plans to look for signs of scurvy in other bones that have been found scattered along the expedition's land route as the crew dropped dead.