After 150 Years, We May Know What Happened To This Arctic Expedition

For centuries, the Northwest Passage was the Holy Grail of naval exploration. A clear waterway between Canada and the Arctic Circle would (theoretically) cut down on travel time between hemispheres, but it proved incredibly elusive. Although European sailors first began seeking the much-rumored route since the 1490s, the first successful navigation of the Northwest Passage wouldn't come until the 20th century, and even then, it took three full years to get from one ocean to the other. Sir Francis Drake, Captain James Cook, and Henry Hudson (of Hudson Bay fame) would all attempt the journey, and all would meet with failure.

The most disastrous attempt, however, was the Franklin Expedition, which cost the lives of all 129 crew members. How they died has always been something of a mystery — but a modern-day dentist believes he's finally solved the riddle.

Map of the probable routes taken by HMS Erebus and HMS Terror during Franklin's lost expedition.

A Deepening Mystery

In May, 1845, Sir John Franklin set sail from England in search of the Northwest Passage. His ships were the not-at-all ominously named Terror and Erebus (the personification of darkness in Greek mythology), captained by himself and crewed by 128 stalwart sailors. Save for a sighting by whalers off the cost of Baffin Island that July, they were never seen by British eyes again.

In a way, it doesn't sound that mysterious, does it? The Arctic is not a notably hospitable place, so they probably crashed their ships and sunk. Or found themselves marooned, and died of starvation and exposure. In any case, two years after the Terror and Erebus left harbor, search parties were dispatched to find their remains. 12 years later, the first skeletons were discovered. Those bodies carried a journal describing how the ships had been trapped in the ice in 1846, and documented how the survivors lived for two years waiting for the ice to thaw. If you don't feel like doing the math, let us confirm your morbid suspicion: yes, those sailors were still alive when the first search parties set out.

It wasn't until 2014 that the wrecks of the ships themselves were discovered, having drifted finally to the bottom of the ocean. With them came answers — and more questions. Chief among those mysteries was how, exactly, those unfortunate souls met their end. After all, they survived for years in the frozen wasteland. And Inuit people in the area told stories of stranded white men who had resorted to cannibalism on the snowy wastes. But if the Inuits could reach them, then why couldn't they get back to safer harbors?

Erebus and Terror

The Tooth Is Out There

A professor of periodontics and oral medicine at the University of Michigan thinks he may have an answer. Dr. Russell Taichman has pored over the eyewitness accounts of gaunt, emaciated survivors, and one detail stuck out. According to nearly two thousand citations, many of the men were described as having hard, dry, blackened mouths. That's one of the symptoms of Addison's disease, an affliction of the adrenal glands that starves the body of the hormone cortisol. It can be caused by tuberculosis, which was already on the list of possible explanations for the disaster. So this mystery may have finally been figured out — either that, or it was just the poetically inevitable result of naming your vessel after the evil god of darkness.

After 168 Years Franklin Expedition's HMS Terror Found

Written by Reuben Westmaas September 8, 2017

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