160-Year-Old Soup Can Shows Arctic Explorers Were Slurping Lead

By Andrew Moseman | December 16, 2009 1:31 pm

Franklin220It’s amazing what artifacts you can find buried in the ice. (No I’m not talking about that leftover turkey that’s been in your freezer since last Thanksgiving. Though if you consider that an historical find, more power to you.)

Last month Discoblog brought you the story of the century-old whiskey that British explorer Ernest Shackleton left on Antarctica, which New Zealanders recovered and plan to replicate. Now scientists have analyzed a soup can found in the Canadian Arctic that dates to around the time of the famous Franklin Expedition, and could point to how its members met their doom.

Franklin, an Englishman, took two ships on an attempt to sail the Northwest Passage, but disappeared with the loss of all hands, leaving a long-lived mystery about how they died. The soup can, however, shows lead levels “off the scale,” suggesting lead poisoning as a likely cause of the expedition’s gloomy end. From the Times Colonist:

The can of soup tested at McMaster was left on Dealey Island in 1852 by crewmen from a rescue mission sent to search for the Terror and Erebus. Scientists believe the provisions from the two rescue ships — HMS Resolute commanded by Henry Kellett, and HMS Intrepid captained by Francis M’Clintock — were identical to those supplied for Franklin’s expedition, and therefore shed fresh light on a prime suspect from that ill-fated voyage.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, Antarctic historians turned up something interesting in the hut of Robert Scott, the man bested by Roald Amundsen in the race to reach the South Pole in the first years of the 1910s. A block of frozen butter survived the nearly 100 years on the icy continent. Lizzie Meek of the Antarctic Heritage Trust told The Times:

“It looked like an old wrinkly bag and you look inside and saw the wonderful Silver Fern logo,” she said.

She desribed [sic] the butter’s smell as “very pungent.”

“What’s amazing is how strong that smells,” she said. “I’m not sure I’d want it on my toast.”

Related Content:
Discoblog: In Antarctica, Drilling for… 100-Year-Old Whiskey?
DISCOVER: Living Through the Donner Party
Bad Astronomy: North Pole Ice to Disappear This Year?

Image: Wikimedia Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Food, Nutrition, & More Food
  • Brian Too

    Mmmmmmmmmm, 160-year old, lead contaminated soup! Sounds delicious!

  • http://fantasyva.com Mitch

    Pictures people. We want pictures……

  • http://fantasyva.com Mitch

    btw in the future historians will say we were just as ignorant when they find our BPA plastic bottles, even after we were` aware they posed health concerns…..

  • Laurence Penman

    The solvency of lead in food is time related, the present level of lead bears no relation to the amount that would have been ingested one years after manufacture. Heat also affects the amount taken up from the soft solder, If the soup was heated in the cans there would be more lead than if it was heated in a tinned iron ‘billy can’.

    The disaster to the Franklin expedition was not spread over the several years that lead poisoning from food or water would need to seriously impair their brains. Malnutrition and extreme cold would be far quicker.

  • http://www.conteneurs.org Maureen

    I prefer the whiskey story but this one is not so bad too!

    I think that Mitch is right for the plastic bottles in the future, if there is ice on earth again.

    French kiss, Maureen

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