Saturday 13 April 2019

My talk at Mystic Seaport

It was a real honour for me, and a great pleasure, to participate in the symposium
 which was hosted by the wonderful Mystic Seaport Museum on Friday, April 5, 2019.

My part in the show was as the second speaker on a panel with John Geiger and Keith Millar. Our set was billed as:
 “Of Ships and Men: What can modern forensics tell us about their fate?”

A "Goldner's Patent" tin can

I started off with an image of a replica Goldner's soup can and explained that the story of these cans and the mystery of the lead detected in the human remains had fascinated me more more than a decade.

Lead has some surprising properties, it is resistant to strong acids like Sulphuric acid, but is attacked by weak acids such as may be found in fruit juice. There have been documented cases of people getting lead poisoning from fruit juice served in lead-glazed ceramic jugs brought home as souvenirs.

Distillation has also been a culprit. As water condenses from vapour it absorbs carbon dioxide from the air to make carbonic acid. This weak acid has been implicated in poisoning cases where lead-soldered radiators were employed as condensers in illicit moonshine stills, and in crudely constructed rum distilleries in the eighteenth century West Indies.

Canned tomatoes have been also been a cause of lead poisoning, the fruit's acid leaching lead from the soldered seams of the cans. This principle has famously been proposed as the source of the lead exposure on the Franklin expedition, but faces the obstacle that the only canned provisions which appear in the expedition's victualling manifests are of low-acidity. There are canned meats and soups, but no canned fruit or other acidic canned products are listed.

I feel considerable sympathy for Stephan Goldner, the supplier of the canned food, or "preserved provisions" as it was called in the day. Goldner is reported to have had a prickly personality but his downfall was caused by a change to the production process, requested by the Admiralty, some time after the Franklin expedition had sailed. Nonetheless, from the early 1850s, when the scandal of the putrid meat in the Naval storehouses erupted, Goldner was villified for decades. He was called a miscreant and a traitor, one old Arctic hand even wrote that he should have been hanged - twice.

That abuse is not connected in any way to the lead from cans theory, which is a valid scientific hypothesis, albeit one which I have argued against.

Frazer stove from Peter Carney's paper
Original artwork by Kristina Gehrmann
I next mentioned the work of my great friend, the late William Battersby. William had, in 2008, published a paper in the online Journal of the Hakluyt Society with the confident title "Identification of the probable source of the lead poisoning observed in members of the Franklin expedition". 

On first reading, I found his paper compelling. William had gone back to the dockyard drawings of the ships, and nineteenth century patent documents, and from these he had synthesised a brilliant interpretation of the technical systems of the ships, including the conclusion that freshly distilled water produced by a modification to the Frazer's Patent cooking stove was at the root of the lead poisoning story. This distilled water, being mildly acid, would dissolve lead from any piping or soldered joint in the apparatus.

However, several of William's interpretations of the evidence proved questionable and were later reinterpreted in our co-authored paper, for the Newcomen Society, on the equipment of the ships. Perhaps most significant is the fact that a simple comparison of physical constants (latent heat of fusion = 334 joules per gram, latent heat of vaporisation = 2,230 joules per gram) suggests that for a given quantity of heat energy you get more than six times more water by melting ice than you get by boiling water for distillation. In other words, making drinking water by distillation of sea water is an insane waste of energy if there is ice or snow available to melt.

My subsequent paper built on William's work but used evidence from Ross and Crozier's Antarctic voyage that indicated drinking water was routinely made by melting ice in the stove's coppers or boilers. The snow tank above the stove would in this case serve only to condense excess steam arising during use of the stove for cooking. My idea was that some of this steam might condense in the (probably) lead pipe leading to the snow tank, dissolving lead and carrying it down into the coppers. There it would contaminate the day's production of drinking water made by melting ice in the coppers immediately they were free after cooking dinner was completed.

I know that I surprised a few people when I said that, for various reasons, I no longer believed my own cherished theory and that I now regard some of my interpretations of the evidence as incorrect. My current view is that the vast majority of the lead found in the bones of Franklin's men was laid down in their bones during their lives before they joined the expedition, even before they went to sea.

My next move was a theatrical flourish. I reached into my pocket and pulled out this:

a brightly coloured lollipop
There have been various suggestions for potential sources of lead exposure in the Victorian period. Lead piped water supplies are often mentioned but I think that, at this early period, such luxuries as indoor plumbing were only for the rich. Adulterated food seems more likely to me, and of the various foodstuffs mentioned in the contemporary literature the one which stands out can be summed up as "Poisonous Coloured Confectionery". I listed some of the (possible) pigments used in candy of the period:
City of London Medical Officer Dr. Henry Letheby, stated in evidence to a Parliamentary Committee:

... of all adulterations of that kind, introduction of poisonous pigments into confectionery is the most common and the most serious, There is not an article of confectionery in this country which is not so coloured, I have before me a sample of such confectionery, in which there is enough chromate of lead to do serious mischief,...
Coloured candy of the era was truly the "mutual friend" of doctors and gravediggers.

I promised every member of the audience a lick but no one took me up on the offer ☹️

A traditional style sweetshop
My local sweetshop

What about the spongy bone! I hear you cry. Anne Keenleyside's marvelous analysis of the bones found on King William Island shows a high ratio of lead levels between the spongy (trabecular or cancellous) bone and the dense (cortical) bone. Spongy bone has a large surface in contact with the blood, so its lead content is indicative of blood lead levels. Lead incorporated in the mineral structure of dense bone is locked away out of reach of the blood. Comparison with the same ratio for workers exposed to atmospheric lead pollution, led to the conclusion that the lead exposure was relatively recent.

However, there are circumstances in which lead locked away in the dense bone is released into the blood stream. One well known example is pregnancy, which must be considered unlikely in this case. A better example can be found in cases of treatment of obesity by gastric banding. In such cases the body seems to exhibit a starvation reflex and starts mining the bones. In the case of Franklin's men the comparison is obvious, lead which had been laid down in the dense bone many years before was released into their blood stream while they were starving to death.

There are other cases where comparisons with healthy modern people subject to atmospheric pollution are not helpful. After all, there was no lead smelter or automobile battery factory in the vicinity of the ships.

But what about the lead in the hair! Surely that proves they were ingesting lead during the expedition?

Well, no. Firstly the lead levels in the hair are extraordinarily high. In the case of John Torrington about twenty times the level of a man who was deliberately poisoned to death, with lead, by a love rival. Clearly, Torrington did not ingest twenty times the lethal dose of lead week after week in the months before his death with no signs of lead poisoning. The vast majority of the lead in the hair must therefore be from an external source and not from his diet.

This another case where comparison with atmospheric pollution is not helpful. When hair is contaminated with lead particles from the air, a high proportion can be washed off using detergents or organic solvents. Stronger reagents such as EDTA or mineral acids may remove even more but run the risk of confusing the analysis by leaching out lead incorporated within the body of the hair.

The situation is different when hair absorbs lead in a mildly acidic aqueous solution. In this case it seems the lead ions are exchanged for ions from within the hair. The lead in this case is like a permanent dye and is not removed by the standard laboratory washing procedures.

In his memoir of the 1875 Arctic expedition, George Strong Nares wrote:
The greatest annoyance of all, and which has never yet been completely avoided in Arctic ships, was the moisture which collected on the beams of the messdeck, to such an extent as to necessitate their being frequently sponged in order to prevent it dripping.

Nares' ships didn't have the advantage of the Sylvester stove for heating the ship but there can be little doubt that condensation was an issue on Erebus and Terror.

The water condensing on the beams will have absorbed carbon dioxide from the air, creating carbonic acid. This mild acid will have leached lead from the painted surfaces of the beams. It may have dripped onto the men directly or been transferred to their hair as they wiped their fingers through it. The hair will have absorbed lead ions from the mildly acidic aqueous solution. The lead, tightly bound to the hair, would go on to confound scientists who were more familiar with the loosely bound hair-lead resulting from atmospheric pollution.

So, in short, my answer to the Franklin expedition lead question is paint. Lead paint on the candy. Lead paint on the ships.

My researches on the subject sparked a wider curiosity into the diet of the seamen of the era, which led me to start work on a simulation project. My plan is to live for one week solely on the seaman's diet of ships biscuit with either salted or canned meat on alternate days, plus the various other foodstuffs in the manifests. When I mentioned this to John Geiger he immediately replied "No! Do it for a year!". Well, we'll see.

As you can see in this photo, I already have most of the necessary stores assembled.

Salt meat, ship's biscuit, and various other Naval foodstuffs

The Goldner cans are the only major hurdle left for me to overcome. They have been supplied as kits by Master Tinsmith Shay Lelegren of Hot Dip Tin. I will assemble them using 60/60 Tin/Lead solder and they will be filled and heat processed in as close a simulation to the original process as possible. It goes without saying that I will have medical monitoring during the period and intend to provide samples which may contribute to the scientific understanding of the seaman's diet of the era. By this I mean things like blood and hair samples and not, as someone suggested, my autopsy.

Many thanks to my fellow panellists, and in particular to Nicholas Bell for his hospitality at Mystic Seaport and to Russell Potter for his fantastic work in making this fabulous event happen.


  1. Most interesting! Appreciate the overview!

  2. Lead paint was banned decades ago in USA . Way back in the 1960s, it peeled off houses like heck. Children were eating the peelings.

    Do you think that in early to mid 1800s Engkand, children ate the peelings and ingested lead ?

    1. I'm sure they did. It's an eating disorder called Pica.

    2. I have a feeling those guys probably weren't washing their hair with shampoo.

  3. But even over time, lead pipes will build up a biofilm that helps stop the lead from leeching into the water. Also the water itself wouldn't exactly be pure h2o necessarily. Water in into itself is a fantastic solvent, though. There'd still be contamination in the water to build a biofilm, even as a byproduct of the stuff they were cooking in the coppers. It'd be interesting to examine the inside of one of those pipes microscopically. I have a feeling they probably weren't exactly clean. Wholesome, sure, clean, doubtful.


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  6. And just another thought, then I promise I'll stop commenting, but it might have been the rum vs candy. Rum was distilled in lead pipes and as everybody on the expedition were sailors... Well you see where I'm going with this

    Maybe that's why goodsir's hair sample showed a decrease in lead in the last month or so of his life, they ran out of rum?


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