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Sunday Musings: Old Mysteries Yield To New Chemistry

Muse on this: Some intractable mysteries with mortal consequences just a hundred years or so ago are now everyday issues that can be cured by a simple change in manufacturing processes or materials handling procedures, or even an over-the-counter pill…

Franklin Survivors - © 2021 Arctic Research FundationSurvivors of the Franklin Expedition, man-hauling lifeboats southward
in search of civilization – as imagined in a 19th century painting.

When I was a kid, I was a National Geographic junkie. For years, until I left home to go out on my own, I had a monthly subscription to the iconic magazine and read it cover to cover. One of the subjects that I loved most was the exploration of distant and exotic places – from the sea floor (with Jacques Yves Cousteau),  to the Moon (with Apollo 11), and from the Arctic (with Franklin expedition), to the Antarctic (with Shackleton).

Even then, all about food

Even in my teens, I was obsessed with food and how it fit into the answer to the great question of ‘life, the universe and everything’. Which is to say, I always wanted to know what those intrepid explorers ate on their heroic treks to the ends of the earth (and beyond). And I was surprised about what I discovered when I dug deeper to scratch that itch.

What killed the Franklin Expedition?

It wasn’t the Arctic cold, starvation, unsympathetic indigenous people, or anything like that. And it wasn’t until late last century, when remnants of the expedition’s camps –  including the graves of some of its members – were discovered on a remote northern island.

Can you guess? It was canned food. No, really! Canned food was invented by a Frenchman in answer to a challenge by Napoleon to come up with a way to send ‘fresh’ food to his troops on campaign. How did that all come about?

According to Wikipedia: “During the first years of the Napoleonic Wars, the French government offered a hefty cash award of 12,000 francs to any inventor who could devise a cheap and effective method of preserving large amounts of food. The larger armies of the period required increased and regular supplies of quality food. Limited food availability was among the factors limiting military campaigns to the summer and autumn months. In 1809, Nicolas Appert, a French confectioner and brewer, observed that food cooked inside a jar did not spoil unless the seals leaked, and developed a method of sealing food in glass jars. The reason for lack of spoilage was unknown at the time, since it would be another 50 years before Louis Pasteur demonstrated the role of microbes in food spoilage.”

The food connection

Canning became popular in European circles and eventually spread to the rest of the civilized world. But there was a hitch. While Appert originally advocated ‘canning’ in glass bottles, the standard for canned goods packaging in the manufacturing sector became tin, and then steel cans. And with the sealing of food in metal cans, the fate of the Franklin expedition was also sealed.

Franklin thought he was taking advantage of the latest technology when he ordered tons of canned food to supply is expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. But when his ships became trapped in Arctic Ice, and his people had to spend the winter in the north, they started to got sick. And, in the end, they all died. For a century, the debate roiled about why and how they died. But, after an autopsy of the bodies found by a relatively recent search party, it was determined that the party was probably suffering severe Lead poisoning.

For the past 30 years or so, electric welding has been used to seal the side seams of aluminum beverage cans and steel food cans. And modern crimping and sealing procedures have been used to seal the tops and bottoms (where applicable). But for a hundred or so so years after metal cans became de rigeur for canning, side seams of food and beverage cans were soldered closed – with Lead-based solder. After siting for months on ships and then forming the bulk of the Franklin team’s diet for months on end, Lead that had leached into the food deposited itself in the people eating the food, and they started getting sick and, ultimately, dying.

A new example

We now hear that the doomed Shackleton Expedition to the South Pole met a similar fate. According to a new study by a team at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), reported this month in the U.S. Journal of Medical Biography, the expedition and its leader probably succumbed to Beriberi – once thought to be a mainly-tropical disease, and only recently found to be caused by a simple dietary deficiency…

“Historians have traditionally looked at Shackleton’s symptoms in isolation and speculated about their cause,” says study lead author Dr. Paul Gerard Firth, head of the Division of Community and Global Health in the Department of Anesthesia, Critical Care and Pain Medicine at MGH. “We looked at other explorers on the expedition, as well as members of other early expeditions, and found that some had symptoms — such as breathlessness, neuropathy and effort intolerance – similar to Shackleton’s that could be attributed to beriberi. With the benefit of what we now know about nutritional diseases, we believe that beriberi-induced cardiomyopathy – a disease of the heart muscle that makes it difficult for the heart to pump blood – is the correct diagnosis for Ernest Shackleton’s deteriorating health.”

“Fortunately, replacement of thiamine with vitamin B1 supplements (see photo, top of page) can resolve the deficiency within days or hours, although that was not known at the time,” notes co-author Dr. Lauren Fiechtner.

According to an abstract of the study report: “The researchers learned that Edward Wilson, one of two physicians on Shackleton’s first voyage to Antarctica beginning in 1901 – when the explorer fell seriously ill and had to return home after voyaging closer to the South Pole than any previous human – may have suspected beriberi after consulting his medical textbooks, but didn’t settle on that diagnosis at a time when so little was known about the condition. Instead, the prolonged bouts of extreme shortness of breath and physical weakness Shackleton experienced on the British “Discovery” expedition of 1901 to 1903 were ascribed by his contemporaries and subsequent historians to scurvy or underlying heart disease.”

My take

If such medical mysteries as the fate of the Frankin and Shackleton expeditions can be sussed out given time and the relentless forward march of scientific knowledge, who  can imagine what we may consider routine in another hundred years, that we now consider baffling and fear-inducing? Cancer? Who knows.

Also, given that medical science seems on the verge of discovering a true magic bullet for the scourge of obesity, are we in for more such life-and-society-changing developments soon? Within our lifetimes? And after that?

Muse on THAT!

~ Maggie J.