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Professor's love of Arctic leads to new research

Russell Taichman sorts through stacks of photographic slides on a light table as he searches for examples of various oral health conditions pertinent to his research about the crew of the Franklin expedition. He reviewed hundreds of slides from the collection of Dr. Jack Gobetti, a dental school faculty member from 1968-2006.

Russell Taichman’s fascination with the Franklin expedition led him to purchase this letter written by Sir John Franklin on Jan. 29, 1825 -– 20 years before the ill-fated expedition. The letter, displayed in Taichman’s School of Dentistry office, is a reply to the supplier of scientific instruments used by early Arctic explorers.

Pictured in front of a float plane used to search over King William Island are (from left) Franklin explorer Tom Gross, pilot Darcy King, Russell Taichman and island resident Jacob Keanik.

The barren landscape of King William Island surrounds Russell Taichman during an early-morning walk. The rifle over his shoulder is the search team’s protection from polar bears. This brief excursion on foot came after the four explorers slept overnight in their float plane before resuming their aerial search the next day.

Pins on this map in Taichman’s dental school office show some of the 16 Arctic locations he has visited. Although King William Island (the two pins nearest the bottom of the photo) is inside the Arctic Circle, some of Taichman’s other trips have taken him much farther north in the remote polar region.

Russell Taichman examines oral health of the crew of the Franklin expedition in the 1840s

Ann Arbor, Mich., July 13, 2017 -– A professor at the School of Dentistry is using his knowledge of oral health to break new ground in an Arctic exploration mystery that has captivated historians for more than 150 years.

Dr. Russell Taichman, a dentist and world-class cancer researcher, has combined his scientific skills with his life-long love of the Arctic to publish new findings in the journal Arctic about the demise of the crew of the famed Franklin naval expedition in the 1840s. Taichman and his two co-authors believe that Addison’s disease, which affects the adrenal glands, contributed to many of the sailors’ deaths.

The Franklin story is legendary in Arctic lore. In 1845, Sir John Franklin led two British Royal Navy ships, the Erebus and the Terror, in an attempt to navigate the Northwest Passage. The ships became trapped in the ice pack in 1846 near King William Island, which is above the Arctic Circle in what is now northern Canada. Well-stocked with canned food, the crew spent two years on and around the remote island waiting in harsh conditions for the ice to melt and free their ships.

None of the 129 crew members survived to tell the tale, so exactly what caused their deaths has been speculation. Early rescue parties and later modern-day research expeditions found a few, scattered relics, including notes left by the crew. Scientists were able to conduct limited forensic analysis of a few bodies and bone remnants, some of which showed signs of cannibalism. Clues also came from stories told by the native Inuit who had occasionally encountered crew members and said many of the emaciated men had unusual “hard, dry and black” mouths.

Taichman decided to take a deeper look at leading theories of how the sailors died – generally accepted as various combinations of exposure to the extreme Arctic conditions, scurvy, lead poisoning, botulism, tuberculosis and starvation. With a scientist’s eye for thorough data analysis, Taichman teamed with Mark MacEachern, an informationist at U-M’s Taubman Health Science Library who works with the School of Dentistry. Using the physical descriptions described by the Inuit, the pair searched the world’s medical databases to cross reference the crew’s symptoms with diseases. An analysis of 1,718 citations in the medical literature led to a new theory – miliary tuberculosis resulting in adrenal insufficiency, also known as Addison’s disease.

The resulting paper, “A Critical Assessment of the Oral Condition of the Crew of the Franklin Expedition,” was published in the March 2017 issue of Arctic, a quarterly peer-reviewed journal for multi-disciplinary scientific research of the circumpolar regions. The paper examines the various cause-of-death theories in detail based on how the oral cavity is affected by each disease or condition such as lead poisoning. Supporting evidence includes close-up photos of the mouths of modern-day patients with various maladies that cause dark markings on gums, teeth and other parts of the oral cavity.

Evidence of scurvy among the crew falls in line with the fact that sailors of that era often had the disease, but it alone isn’t an answer. A stronger clue is that evidence of tuberculosis was discovered during autopsies of three sailors who died and were buried on a nearby island before the ships were marooned; tuberculosis is highly contagious and later evidence of crew behavior – including Inuit reports of what might have been a separate encampment for extremely ill sailors – support that theory. Lead poisoning, confirmed to a degree by analysis of some of the recovered bones, could have come from lead solder used for the primitive food cans and from lead pipes that distilled water for the crew.

Taichman has long been familiar with the Franklin story and the commonly held theories of why no member of the crew survived, so he was surprised when the medical literature search kept turning up references to Addison’s. He was cautious about a quick diagnosis because this was cross-referencing modern medical studies with patients and symptoms from the mid-1800s. Living conditions, diets and medical knowledge have improved over time, which adds a layer of complexity to this research. “In the old days,” Taichman said, “the most common reason for Addison’s in this country was TB.  In this country now, it’s immune suppression that leads to Addison’s.” So drawing conclusions required many resources.

“I’m sitting there trying to figure it all out and I’m talking to a research fellow, Dr. Frank Cackowski, who’s in my School of Dentistry lab, and I’m thinking this is secondary Addison’s,” Taichman said. “But he knew about Addison’s and he says, no, this is primary Addison’s, and he explained it.”

Armed with that endorsement, Taichman kept finding pieces of the puzzle that fit.  While acknowledging that many factors contributed to the deaths of the crew, the authors note that the Addison’s disease diagnosis is a refinement that fits well with much of the forensic and anecdotal evidence gathered over the last century and a half. People with Addison’s disease have trouble regulating sodium and can become dehydrated, and they are unable to maintain weight even when food is available – two symptoms that would help explain the wasting condition of the crew as observed by the Inuit.

“Scurvy and lead exposure may have contributed to the pathogenesis of Addison’s disease, but the hypothesis is not wholly dependent on these conditions,” the report concludes. “The tuberculosis-Addison’s hypothesis results in a deeper understanding of one of the greatest mysteries of Arctic exploration.”

Taichman is following up on his successful publication in Arctic with a second paper he has submitted to a different Arctic-focused journal. That research, which he hopes will be published later this year, consolidates Franklin stories from various documents and sources.

Taichman’s fascination with the Arctic began as a child in his native Toronto. His father told stories about the early explorers, and the family eventually began annual wilderness trips into the far north. Among his 16 visits to the Arctic, Taichman has led hiking trips for the Sierra Club, kayaked among the icebergs and proposed to his wife.

Over the last few years he has become a contributing member of a small but fervent network of Franklin experts from around the world. They review historical documents at places like the Smithsonian Institution, share information and hold conferences as they continue to hunt for answers and artifacts connected to the expedition. Taichman invited one of the longtime Franklin investigators, Tom Gross, a Canadian living near the Great Slave Lake, to contribute as the third author of his Arctic paper.

Gross has spent many years researching, interviewing the Inuit and using all-terrain vehicles to explore King William Island for Franklin sites and relics.  Even in the summer, the remoteness and terrain make it time-consuming, expensive, rigorous and dangerous just to get to the island, let alone explore it. A few years ago Gross purchased a small aircraft so that he could search more efficiently. He invited Taichman to join him in the summers of 2015 and 2016 as he conducted aerial surveys. Those were wild rides about 200-300 feet above the tundra, Taichman said.  Some days they were fogged out. On other days, even when it was clear, they would strain their eyes for hours and find nothing on the landscape below except normal tundra nothing-ness.

The first rescue parties and later researchers have found scattered sites with artifacts of the Franklin crew – campsites, piles of discarded clothing, skeletons and 40 pounds of chocolate in a ship’s boat, stone cairns built to protect against the Arctic winds, bone fragments, cooking pots  and other relics. Modern-day explorers believe there are more crew sites to be discovered, enticed by various Inuit and early explorer stories of unusual, man-made rock formations and a ceremonial burial that might have been for expedition leader John Franklin. His grave would be the holy grail for Franklin historians because it’s possible that the ships’ logs and other papers – providing a wealth of information about the expedition – were cached with the leader.

Taichman isn’t sure when he may return to join Gross’s search. Taichman obtained satellite images of the island and scours them from time to time to see if he can spot any unusual, man-made blemishes in the terrain. And he holds onto a moment during his 2015 aerial survey when, tired at the end of a long day of searching and on their way back to their landing strip, he and Gross got a glimpse of something strange, a substantial formation, perhaps a grave.  They turned around to try and pinpoint its location, but the plane was low on fuel and they had to fly on without confirming its location, which will make rediscovering it difficult in the vast sameness of King William Island. What was it and can they find it again?

Back at the School of Dentistry in his daily routine, Taichman says he is thrilled to bring his expertise as a faculty member into play for research related to his Arctic avocation. As the dental school’s Major Ash Collegiate Professor of Periodontics and Oral Medicine and Associate Dean for Research, his work in dentistry is complemented by high-level research on how cancer spreads, particularly prostate cancer cells in bone marrow. His Franklin article seems a world apart from his usual scientific publications with titles such as, “Endogenous GAS6 and Mer receptor signaling regulate prostate cancer stem cells in bone marrow.”

The community of Franklin expedition experts seems happy to have a dentist-scientist join the fold. A forensic scientist who was conducting an examination of crew remains recently asked Taichman for help. She sent him a radiograph of a third molar and asked if he could examine it to pinpoint the individual’s age, so he consulted with his dentistry colleagues.

“And (with that request) now I’m reaching out to the School of Dentistry community about the Franklin expedition,” Taichman enthuses. “This is great! This is just great! This is so much fun! As a hobby, obviously being a dentist helps in some areas. But it is so much fun. So really it is using the talents of the science I do formally and trying to adapt it to a new field.”

“It’s been a fascinating, fascinating, fun sort of story,” he says of his growing involvement with the Franklin experts. “I’ve just had a blast.”

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The University of Michigan School of Dentistry is one of the nation’s leading dental schools engaged in oral health care education, research, patient care and community service.  General dental care clinics and specialty clinics providing advanced treatment enable the school to offer dental services and programs to patients throughout Michigan.  Classroom and clinic instruction prepare future dentists, dental specialists, and dental hygienists for practice in private offices, hospitals, academia and public agencies.  Research seeks to discover and apply new knowledge that can help patients worldwide.  For more information about the School of Dentistry, visit us on the Web at: www.dent.umich.edu.
 
Contact: Lynn Monson, associate director of communications, at dentistry.communications@umich.edu, or (734) 615-1971.