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Northern People, Northern Knowledge - 
The Story Of The Canadian Arctic Expedition 1913 - 1918
Survival: Illness, Accidents, and Deaths
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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.

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"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).

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Jenness doctoring hand of injured Copper Inuk man, Ayalik, Bernard Harbour, Nunavut. September 7, 1914. JJO 38682. Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization

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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.


Historic Sites memorial plaque "In Memory of those who perished - Canadian Arctic Expedition 1913-1918". Source: Canadian Museum of Nature

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).

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Why and how did the 17 CAE men die?

A few of the Expedition deaths 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 scurvy. 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).

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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 ice.

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.

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Although there were numerous close calls when it comes to drownings, only one fatality occurred by drowning during the Expedition. The Alaskan native Pipsuk was drowned while tending the Expedition fish net at Barter Island in July 1918.

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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 Lane.

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Heart Attack

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).


Funeral of J. Jones, chief engineer of the CAE schooner Polar Bear; nine parka-clad men standing around hole in ground, Armstrong Point, northwest Victoria Island, N.W.T. April 26, 1916. GHW 51156. Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization

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Funeral of J. Jones, who died December 1915 and was buried April 26, 1916; men lowering coffin into the grave, Armstrong Point, northwest Victoria Island, N.W.T. GHW 51155 (photo by J. Hadley). Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization


Group standing alongside a tall white wooden cross marking the grave of John Jones. (Possibly Peter Lopez and Uttaktuak on right) Armstrong Point, Victoria Island, N.W.T. July? 1916. JH 63454. Source: Canadian Museum of Nature

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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).

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