U of S and Canadian Light Source contribute to discovery

SASKATOON, SK. It’s long been thought that crew members of the mid-1800s Franklin Expedition died from exposure to high levels of lead on the expedition.

But new research—using advanced imaging and analytical tools at the University of Saskatchewan and two other Canadian universities to study the 170-year-old thumbnail of HMS Terror crew member John Hartnell—tells a different story.

joyce mcbeth franklin expeditions
Dr. Joyce McBeth and Nicole Sylvain working on samples at the CLS.

Led by TrichAnalytics Inc. CEO and founder Jennie Christensen, the study suggests that severe zinc deficiency from malnutrition played a greater role than lead poisoning in the tragic demise of the crew during their search for the Northwest Passage.

"This is an outstanding application of cutting-edge science, at the interface between archaeology and forensics, to solve a 170-year-old mystery,” said Chris Hunt, co-editor of Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports which published the study results today. “Jennie Christensen and her team are to be congratulated on a great piece of work.”  

The team used nail tissues, which provide a record of metals in the body over time, to examine metal exposure and diet throughout the early Franklin expedition.

U of S scientists Joyce McBeth and Nicole Sylvain used synchrotron micro-XRF mapping at the Canadian Light Source at the U of S to assess environmental contamination in the nail samples. Christensen’s analysis of the nail samples was conducted at the University of Victoria with researcher Jody Spence using a laser ablation tool, with support from Stantec Consulting Ltd. Hing Man (Laurie) Chan used stable isotope analysis at the University of Ottawa to assess sources of protein in Hartnell’s diet.

“Our data enabled us to determine whether the metals in the thumbnail were from Hartnell’s diet or from contamination of the nail tissues from environmental sources such as coal dust on the ship,” said U of S geological sciences researcher McBeth. “This provided us with the information we needed to validate Jennie’s quantitative laser analyses.”

The study concluded that significant lead exposure did not occur during the expedition. Until his last few weeks of life, Hartnell’s lead levels were within a healthy, normal range.

Instead, the analysis found that Hartnell was severely zinc-deficient, which possibly led to immune-suppression and ultimately tuberculosis and death. Zinc plays an integral role in vitamin A metabolism, and deficiencies in zinc and vitamin A result in compromised immune function and diminished ability to fight infections, including tuberculosis. As malnourishment and zinc deficiency have behavioral symptoms similar to lead toxicity, this may explain the strange behavior of the crew members observed by Inuit peoples after the expedition had run into trouble.

jennie christensen vespers
Dr. Jennie Christensen at the VESPERS beamline facility at the CLS. 

“The process of starvation from tuberculosis resulted in the exponential release of previously-stored lead into Hartnell’s blood,” said Christensen. “Lead concentrations were only high and increasing at the end of his life when he was already likely near death. This explains why previous researchers discovered high lead concentrations in soft tissue, but they erroneously concluded it was due to recent exposure.”

The two ships that embarked on Franklin’s expedition, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, were discovered in Canada’s North in 2014 and 2016, respectively. The Inuit Heritage Trust and Canadian Museum of History provided Hartnell’s thumbnail and toenail to the research group for study.

The full study is available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352409X16306198

Read about synchrotron micro-XRF mapping here: http://research-groupstest.usask.ca/mcbeth/tools-and-techniques.php#Techniques and stable isotope analysis here:  http://luna.cas.usf.edu/~rtykot/PR39%20-%20Enrico%20Fermi%20isotopes.pdf



“This new approach using laser and synchrotron techniques to track metal exposure and dietary intake will have far-reaching applications, including enabling scientists to better assess exposure to metals such as lead or mercury in humans and animals over time,” said Karen Chad, U of S Vice-President Research. “Our contribution to this discovery highlights our outstanding U of S research expertise and tools, particularly in our signature areas of synchrotron sciences and one health which intregrates animal, human and environmental health.” 

“This is a great example of what happens at light source facilities—scientists from different disciplines coming together under one roof, doing great science to solve big problems and, sometimes, great mysteries like this one,” said Canadian Light Source CEO Rob Lamb.

“What drives us at TrichAnalytics is uncovering the mysteries around the health of our biological world. We see the possibilities that have been demonstrated with our research into the Franklin Expedition and will apply to today’s urgent health questions,” said TrichAnalytics Inc. CEO and founder Jennie Christensen.

“The University of Ottawa is pleased to support Canada Research Chair Dr. Laurie Chan, whose cutting-edge toxicology and environmental health research helped solve one of Canada’s national mysteries,” said Mona Nemer, USask Vice-President Research.

“Stantec is proud to have been part of the team and support the research led by Dr. Jennie Christensen. This is an exciting discovery that contributes to solving the mystery of the Franklin Expedition, an intriguing piece of Canadian history. Jennie’s work demonstrates the breadth of expertise environmental scientists can do. Our teams are driven by curiosity, which results in extraordinary work and innovative findings,” said Jeff Green, Vice President of Quality and Innovation for Environmental Services.


About the University of Saskatchewan

The University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon is the core of a dynamic research hub working to address critical challenges faced by people locally and around the world.  World-class research centres on campus include global institutes for food and water security, the Canadian Light Source synchrotron, the Crop Development Centre, and the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac), plus an impressive array of national and provincial bio-science research labs. With stellar research teams and annual research income of over $200 million, the university has earned a place among the U15 group of Canada’s top research universities. More information is available at: www.usask.ca

About the Canadian Light Source

Located at the University of Saskatchewan, the Canadian Light Source is a national research facility, one of the largest science projects in our country’s history, and the brightest light in Canada—millions of times brighter than even the sun—used by over 1,000 scientists from around the world every year in ground-breaking health, environmental, materials, and agricultural research. www.lightsource.ca

About TrichAnalytics Inc.

TrichAnalytics Inc. of Victoria, B.C. spearheads a dynamic analysis approach to uncover data within “growing” biological tissues such as hair, fur, nails and feathers. The data is used to study and monitor temporal changes in environmental, human and wildlife health and make decisions using the best possible information.

About Stantec

The Stantec community unites approximately 22,000 employees working in over 400 locations across six continents. Our work—engineering, architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, surveying, environmental sciences, project management, and project economics, from initial project concept and planning through design, construction, and commissioning—begins at the intersection of community, creativity, and client relationships. With a long-term commitment to the people and places we serve, Stantec has the unique ability to connect to projects on a personal level and advance the quality of life in communities across the globe. Stantec trades on the TSX and the NYSE under the symbol STN. Visit stantec.com 


Connect with us

By providing your email address, you are expressing consent to receive electronic messages from the Canadian Light Source. You can unsubscribe from these messages at any time.

Monthly Newsletter

**Newsletters are sent approximately once a month**

Events Notifications

If you’re looking for information on how you can use CLS techniques in your research program, please contact us using this form.

Example queries may include: Feasibility around a potential experiment? A scientific problem we can help you solve? Is your question related to a specific technique? Do you want to know more about how to apply for beamtime?