In any Arctic exploration, especially when the expedition is
year-round, there is the potential for illness, injury, and even death. The Arctic
can be a harsh environment and it takes only a few unexpected incidents to lead
to problems. Members of the CAE were afflicted with minor problems such as snowblindness,
and they suffered mild illnesses, serious accidents, and death. Diary entries
describe some of the minor medical incidents.
"We had been having trouble with snowblindness continually
on account of the lack of amber-colored glasses. On landing in Amund Ringnes Island
we were all of us slightly touched and Charlie [Andersen] was so seriously snowblind
that we were delayed three days. In a case as bad as his was the pain is extreme,
equalling the most severe earache and worse than toothache. (Stefansson 1921).
"Sweeney has narrowly escaped losing his arm if not his
life" (Jenness 1991). Captain Sweeney injured his hand while working on Alaska
and the wound became badly infected. The arm was swollen badly and had to be operated
on several times. He only recovered the use of the arm after many weeks.
"V.S. [Stefansson] had managed to get a sore leg and was
compelled to ride on the sled all the way to the new land. He himself says that
he does not remember giving it a wrench or sprain and cannot account for the sickness,
but Martin says he remembers seeing V.S. fall off a sled while going down hill.
He was wearing snowshoes at the time, and Martin thinks he may have hurt his foot
then. But the swelling and pain seems to be in the leg between the ankle and the
knee and not weakened at the joints particularly" (Wilkins Diary).
The Friendly Arctic?
Although Stefansson's published narrative of the Expedition
is entitled The Friendly Arctic, seventeen men died during the expedition:
eleven associated with the sinking of the Karluk, two as members of the
Southern Party, and four as members of the Northern Party.
Stefansson downplayed these deaths and other negative aspects of the Expedition.
In a letter written in 1920, in which he discussed the possible awarding of the
Arctic Medal to CAE members, Stefansson made the extraordinary statement that
"neither men nor dogs have been lost and that neither men nor dogs have suffered
serious hardship" (Stefansson 1920, National Archives of Canada).
Why and how did the 17 CAE men die?
A few of the Expedition
can be linked to inadequate food.
Two of the men who died on Wrangel Island, Geologist George Malloch
and his assistant Bjarne Mamen died of nephritis, likely due to a starvation diet
based on faulty pemmican. Bernard and Thomsen may have been short of food. Daniel
Blue died of pneumonia but had been suffering from scurvy at the time.
In February 1915 the crew of Alaska, other trappers
and traders wintering along the coast, and several Inuit were afflicted with what
they suspected was
Recognizing the lack of variety in their diet, they began eating more meat. In
a somewhat ironic switch of roles, the engineer, Daniel Blue, was able to trade
chewing gum for some "scurvy medicine" or citric acid, from the local
natives. The problem cleared up as long as the medicine and fresh meat lasted.
Though they were able to carry on with the normal activities of hunting and
fox-trapping, they were weakened by the "sickness."
"Apr. 15th. The scurvy has set in again in my legs, now
all the provisions we have are, Peas, flour, and sugar, no medicine for scurvy,
I procured a bottle of Enoch's Fruit Salts from Mr. Girling
Apr. 16th... Mr. Jacobson discovered tonight that he had the scurvy also him and
I are going on a Ptarmigan hunt as soon as the weather permitts, the storm kept
us from starting this am." (D.W. Blue Diary, April 1915)
Blue returned from the ptarmigan hunt with Jacobsen, riding
on a sled and apparently suffering from pneumonia. Daniel Blue, chief engineer
of the Alaska, died on 2 May 1915 after an illness of ten days. Captain Sweeney
noted on the last page of Blue's diary: "Stores on ship in spring included
a quantity of mixed soup, vegetables, tea, also fresh meat on board all winter.
Statement D. Sweeney"
Scurvy also affected members of the northern exploratory party
in May 1917. Stefansson was forced to turn back to hunt caribou and establish
what they called Camp Hospital when Knight and Noice became too weak to perform
their regular duties. "At times we had to build roads in order to get the
sledges over the pressure ridges. Hitherto the Commander had done only the leading
and directing, but now that Knight and I were unable to do any strenuous work
[due to scurvy] he exchanged his light ice chisel for the heavy miner's pick"
(Noice Diary, May1921).
Four members of the Karluk crew and scientific staff
died, probably while still on the ice, trying to reach Herald and Wrangel Islands.
Alistair Mackay, Henri Beuchat, James Murray, and Stanley Morris died, probably
of exposure as they were close to freezing the last time they were seen, after
splitting with Captain Bartlett's party and struggling independently across the
Charles Thomsen and Peter Bernard died on the north coast of
Banks Island in December 1916 or January 1917 while trying to take new sledges
and supplies to Stefansson's Northern Party on Melville Island. We will never
know the exact cause of death, but the main factors likely included a combination
of weather, exposure, hunger, and exhaustion. Castel's diary relates the
discovery of Thomsen's body.
Although there were numerous close calls when it comes to drownings,
only one fatality occurred by drowning during the Expedition. The Alaskan
Pipsuk was drowned while tending the Expedition fish net at Barter Island
in July 1918.
Four members of the Karluk crew died in 1914 after
reaching Herald Island. The Herald Island party, composed of Alex Anderson (First
Officer of Karluk), Charles Barker, John Brady, and A. Golightly, were
sent ahead by Bartlett, and managed to reach Herald Island. They all died there
soon after of uncertain cause, possibly from fumes from a faulty stove. Their
fate was only discovered in 1924, when their remains were found by Captain Louis
John Jones, engineer of the Polar Bear, died of an
apparent heart attack in late December 1916 at Armstrong Point, Victoria Island.
He had apparently suffered from heart disease for some time and had been having
trouble sleeping because of heart pain. Jones complained of not feeling well in
late December, and often got up to pace the floor after going to bed. "One
evening before anyone went to bed he had just lain down in his bunk when he gave
a scream and started struggling out. Two of the men rushed to him, but he was
dead when they got there" (Stefansson 1921).
After spending an uncomfortable winter on Wrangel Island, barely
surviving on pemmican and limited game, Seaman George Breddy died of a gunshot
wound. This was probably self-inflicted, but there was some suggestion of manslaughter,
as Breddy had been accused of stealing food from the others (Niven 2000).