Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Lasers on a Thumbnail Reveal Franklin Expedition Diet, Cause of Death

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Lasers on a Thumbnail Reveal Franklin Expedition Diet, Cause of Death

Article excerpt

Lasers reveal Franklin expedition diet


New research has shed more light on one of Canada's enduring mysteries -- the fate of the Franklin expedition.

Scientists used lasers and high-energy beams from the Canadian Light Source in Saskatoon to illuminate the last few months of the doomed 19th-century British voyage to the Northwest Passage.

The study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, firms up earlier conclusions that the Franklin's 129 crew members didn't die of lead poisoning from canned food. It also suggests the expedition was running low on supplies long before its ships became stranded in ice -- all from the careful examination of a thumbnail.

"This is kind of like a Canadian myth," said co-author Laurie Chan. "I get excited at the opportunity to work on it and talk about it."

The Franklin expedition headed north, never to return, in 1845. Some remains of its crew have been discovered, along with ghastly evidence of cannibalism. Its two ships, Erebus and Terror, were found within the last two years by underwater archeologists.

But how things went so badly wrong has remained a mystery and a legend.

The latest chapter began two years ago. Jennie Christensen, an environmental consultant with expertise in toxicology, thought it would be productive to use the latest laser technology to examine one of the Franklin corpses discovered on Beechey Island in 1984.

She got in touch with Chan, a colleague at the University of Ottawa.

The team applied to the Museum of History in Ottawa and the Inuit Heritage Trust, which has custody of the bodies. Eventually, they were granted a small piece of toenail from able seaman John Hartnell.

The toenail was found to be contaminated so they turned their attention to a thumbnail.

They used lasers and the University of Saskatchewan's synchrotron to peer inside the nail to a layer unaffected by outside contaminants. …

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