Franklin’s expedition’s crewmember’s toenail analysis complete

Chemical analysis a nail found in a remote grave of a member of the ill-fated expedition of Sir John Franklin, John Hartnell, found on Beechey Island, revealed zinc deficiency in the body of the deceased.

Toenail of John Hartnell (by Jennie Christensen)

Detailed chemical mapping of a dead man’s fingernail sheds new light on the ill-fated expedition to the Arctic led by English explorer John Franklin. The expedition disappeared in 1845 during its search for the Northwest passage with all of the 129-member crew. A team of researchers analysed a toenail and a thumbnail from crewmember John Hartnell, who along two other sailors died during the expedition’s first overwintering on Beechey Island in 1845–46, and was buried there.

John Hartnell’s grave (by Nature Library)

The study revealed zinc deficiency in the remains. This suggest that it was what lead to his death and not lead exposure, what was argued among other theories on the expedition’s disappearance. Scientists of TrichAnalytics measured levels of copper, zinc and lead at different places along the toenail and thumbnail. They revealed that he suffered from a severe zinc deficiency, which could have suppressed his immune system, making him more vulnerable to tuberculosis and pneumonia. Hartnell had relatively high levels of lead only during his last few weeks, when his dying body probably broke down and released long-stored lead from his bones into his blood and nails.

(after Nature, Nature Picture Library & Jennie Christensen)

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