The medicine chest, like so many of the relics of the Franklin Expedition, has information to impart. The problem lies in the correct interpretation of that information and in not ascribing to it a value that it doesn’t really possess. Even armchair Franklin researchers must be careful to separate fact from speculation. Aside from the identities of the medications contained in the chest, what else do we know about it that can be classified as fact, and what must remain the province of speculation?
Who owned the chest?
At first glance, identifying the owner of the chest might seem straightforward. If not the precise owner, it might at least seem likely that we could narrow it down to four individuals: the expedition’s medical professionals. On Erebus these were Stephen Stanley, surgeon, and Harry D. S. Goodsir, assistant-surgeon; on Terror, John Peddie, surgeon, and Alexander McDonald, assistant-surgeon. But like so many things about Franklin’s voyage, what at first appears straightforward turns out to be anything but.
The first complication is the absence of a government property mark, or “broad arrow,” on the chest. These marks were placed on any equipment purchased by the British government and can be seen on many of the relics of the expedition brought back from King William Island by various search parties. The fact that no such mark appears on the chest itself suggests that it was private property, possibly part of the baggage of one of the officers. As Cyriax pointed out, the fact that the medications were not prepared following the standards of one particular pharmacopeia also suggests that the chest was not government issue. Furthermore, only one of the bottles inside the chest – the one once labeled “Tr. Opii” according to McClintock’s account – bears what might by a government property mark, but even this is uncertain.
Nonetheless, the medications included in the chest would have required the specialized knowledge of a trained medical professional to safely administer, which argues against it belonging to the personal stores of a non-medical officer.
What seems to be three lines of writing on the chest’s canvas cover is of little help to identification efforts, as only two letters — “M L” — are now legible. If seems unlikely that, out of three lines, these two letters would conveniently represent initials; yet even if they do, the letters in this order are not found in the initials or full names of any of the medical officers, nor any other crew member.
Until the chest’s cover is subjected to modern imaging analysis techniques – techniques which have yet to be employed on a number of both printed and handwritten relics from Franklin’s expedition – the precise identity of the chest’s owner is likely to remain unknown.
Why was it left at Victory Point?
The message left in the cairn at Victory Point identifies the site’s coordinates as the place where the crews of Erebus and Terror came ashore in April 1848 after the abandonment of the ships. Along with the medicine chest, Hobson found a wealth of other materials abandoned around the cairn, including a dip circle, a sextant, shovels, and, perhaps most significantly, a large amount of clothing which McClintock, observing once he had reached the site, described as being four feet in height. As the starting point for the crews long journey south to the Great Fish River, were the materials left at Victory Point merely those deemed unimportant enough to be abandoned in order to lighten the load the crews had to haul? Or could there have been another reason for these particular items to have been left at Victory Point?
For men about to undertake a strenuous journey, many of whom were likely suffering from scurvy if not a variety of other illnesses, a compact medicine chest would seem to have been an important piece of equipment to take along. After all, to accommodate the space and weight taken up by the chest, the crews could have left behind some of the more superfluous items later discovered by McClintock in the ship’s boat at Erebus Bay. Of course if the chest was private property, it stands to reason that the four medical professionals (if all four were still alive at this period) would have taken along the government-issued medicine chests the ships had no doubt been supplied with, and perhaps they felt the medications contained in these official chests were more appropriate or reliable. Nonetheless, it seems odd that any medications or medical supplies would be deemed expendable at such a point in the expedition.
It is possible that the chest was not abandoned at Victory Point in April 1848, but was actually left there when some number of men returned – or tried to return – to the beset ships at a later date. The problem with this hypothesis is that the significance of Victory Point depends upon the position of the ships at this hypothetical later time. Some men might have returned to Victory Point if the ships remained at the same place where they had been beset in April; if the ships had drifted south with the pack by the time of an attempted return, this contingent of the crews would not have needed to travel so far north. This theory also fails to address why the chest would have been abandoned at Victory Point and not taken back to the ships.
Another, highly intriguing possibility has recently been suggested by the authors of an article which theorizes that tuberculosis and Addison’s disease, not scurvy or lead poisoning, was the root cause of the expedition’s disaster. The authors suggest that the relics discovered at Victory Point – the discarded clothing, four ships’ stoves, and an oar sawed lengthwise in half with a blanket secured to the flat side – may point to the site having been used as an outdoor bathing facility and, possibly, infirmary. The theory presented by the authors is that an epidemic of tuberculosis aboard one or both ships led to their abandonment in April 1848, with the crews moving to shore at least for the duration of the milder summer months, or until the worst of the epidemic had passed. Once they had reached Victory Point, the theory continues, the men would have bathed and discarded the contaminated clothing they had worn on board. Like all theories, this one places a significance on an association between physical traces that may be only coincidental, but artifacts are not the sole – or even most significant – basis for the theory. The authors rely chiefly on medical evidence to support their hypothesis, not relics.
If the tuberculosis theory is correct, the medicine chest may have been specifically designated for use at the bathing facility/infirmary, perhaps to treat any injuries or conditions arising from the journey to shore, then left behind with other materials considered “contaminated” by contact with infected men.
What can the medications tell us?
Richard Cyriax examined the amount of medication remaining in each bottle in an effort to determine if use patterns could identify any particular illness that might have been impacting the expedition. Although no one illness was clearly suggested, his findings may still be instructive for considering particular theories about the expedition’s fate. Only three bottles were found completely empty when discovered by Hobson in 1859: “Spirit Rect.” (rectified spirit), Quinine, and “Ol. Menth. Pip.” (Oil of Peppermint). The bottle of “Ol. Caryoph” (Oil of Cloves) was described as being one-fifth full, while one bottle of “Vin. Sem. Colch” (Wine of Colchicum) and both bottles of “Tinct. Tolut.” (Tincture of Tolu) were one-quarter full. Some use was also indicated by the bottle of “Mur. Hyd.” (Chloride of Mercury), depleted by a little over one ounce; ammonia, three-quarters full; “Tinct. Opii. Camph.” (Camphorated Tincture of Opium), three-quarters full; and “Tr. Opii.” (Tincture of Opium), three-quarters full.
Some interesting conjectures may be drawn from the use of these particular compounds. As Cyriax noted, Tincture of Opium was one of the primary treatments for snow blindness, a condition that almost certainly plagued some of the men during their journey to shore. Rectified spirit was used to administer various drugs, but could also be applied topically to treat muscle injuries, as was ammonia, while wine of colchicum was administered internally to ease the muscle and joint pains of rheumatism and gout. A reduction of the amount in these bottles could suggest injuries sustained from hauling sledges to shore during the April abandonment.
Particularly interesting in light of the tuberculosis theory is the reduction in the bottles of tincture of tolu, camphorated tincture of opium, quinine, and mercury chloride. All of these preparations were used to treat symptoms that occur with tuberculosis, primarily coughs, fever, and difficulty breathing. However, these symptoms were prevalent in many different illnesses and cannot definitively corroborate this theory.
In the absence of sick lists and ships’ logs, all we have are physical traces and what can be gleaned from them: both patent facts and reasonable theories. The truth lies somewhere between the two and, hopefully, with ongoing research, we may yet come closer to grasping it.
Cyriax RJ. “A Historic Medicine Chest.” Canadian Medical Association Journal, vol. 57, no. 3, 1947, p. 295-300. PubMed Central, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1590808/.
McClintock, Francis Leopold, Sir. The Voyage of the ‘Fox’ in the Arctic Seas: A Narrative of the Discovery of the Fate of Sir John Franklin and His Companions. London, John Murray, 1859. Archive.org, https://archive.org/details/voyageoffoxinarc00mcli_0.
Squire, Peter Wyatt, Sir. A Companion to the British Pharmacopoeia: Comparing the Strength of the Various Preparations with Those of the London, Edinburgh, and Dublin, United States and Other Foreign Pharmacopoeias, with Practical Hints on Prescribing. 3rd ed., Edinburgh, Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, 1866. Archive.org, https://archive.org/details/b21701283.
Taichman, Russell S.; Gross, Tom; MacEachern, Mark P.. “A Critical Assessment of the Oral Condition of the Crew of the Franklin Expedition + Supplementary Appendix 1 (See Article Tools).” Arctic, vol. 70, no. 1, 2017, p. 25–36. Arctic Institute of North America, doi:https://doi.org/10.14430/arctic4629.