Dr (Sir) John Richardson—surgeon, explorer, natural historian
Blog Author: George Szasz, CM, MDPosted: Wednesday, March 15, 2017 - 17:06
I recently reviewed Dr Anthony Kenyon’s remarkable book, The Recorded History of the Liard Basin 1790–1910 for the BCMJ. Chapter 15, “John Franklin and Willard Wentzel, 1821 Arctic Exploration,” focuses on the first of Sir John Franklin’s three expeditions to the Arctic. Willard Wentzel, a Norwegian employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company, kept records of the tragic events that happened on that trip—11 men died of starvation and expedition leaders Sir John Franklin, Dr John Richardson, and seven others barely survived. How they survived is not clear. Mr Wentzel’s first report in 1822 ends mysteriously: “This, Sir, is all I am allowed to impart at present.” In a second report 2 years later Mr Wentzel implied that it was with Dr Richardson’s leadership that the survivors engaged in cannibalism, but he provided no proof of this.
I found this story intriguing, but then I more or less forgot about Dr Richardson and what he did or did not do. My interest renewed rapidly, however, when I came across a book by Bill Shutt, a naturalist, vertebrate zoologist, and author: Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History. The book is about the cannibalistic behavior of many creatures, most famously a species of spider. Mr Shutt points out that human cannibalism of various sorts still occurs in some cultures. Dr Richardson’s rumored activity is not mentioned in the book or in any of the references in the detailed biography. But the biography of Dr Richardson captivated me. I was amazed to read about his extraordinary medical and scientific career.
Dr (and later, Sir) John Richardson (1787–1865) was the eldest of 12 children of prosperous Scottish parents. He apprenticed at age 14 to his uncle, a surgeon, and then attended medical school at the University of Edinburgh studying botany, geology, Greek, anatomy, chemistry, materia medica, and therapeutics. Upon graduation he volunteered for the Royal Navy and saw action in the Napoleonic wars. After the war of 1811–1814 he went on half pay, returned to university, completed his MD degree (with further studies in botany and mineralogy), and opened his medical practice. Reportedly, the practice was not very successful because of the postwar surplus of physicians. In 1819 the Navy called him up and assigned him to the first of Sir John Franklin’s three expeditions to the Arctic as a surgeon and naturalist.
The hardships of the expedition to what is now Canada’s Northwest are hard to imagine. The explorers wintered at Cumberland House on the Saskatchewan River in the first year and at Fort Enterprise on Great Bear Lake in the second year. In the summer of 1821 they traveled to the mouth of the Coppermine River at the Arctic Ocean and eventually reached Melville Sound. The expedition covered close to 8000 km of mostly unexplored territory. It was on their return trip to Fort Enterprise in 1822 that the expedition ended in the death of 11 members by starvation and the survival of the others by the rumored means.
Dr Richardson returned to England to complete several sections of Sir Franklin’s report, focusing on geology and zoological material. In 1824 the Navy assigned Dr Richardson as surgeon and naturalist to Sir Franklin’s second expedition, this time also as second in command. Dr Richardson surveyed some 1500 km of the Arctic coast east of the Coppermine River, traveling in two boats with 11 men; he then explored the shores of Great Slave Lake. Dr Richardson’s group measured meteorological events extensively, including temperatures, wind conditions, and magnetic phenomena. In the meantime Sir Franklin explored the territory west of the Coppermine River. Back in England, with extensive zoological and botanical collections, Dr Richardson gave an account of his part in the expedition and in the subsequent years published his book on the fauna and forests of the North in four volumes. In 1838 he was appointed senior physician to the Royal Naval Hospital near Portsmouth. There he established a library and museum to collect specimens of plants and animals sent back by surgeons of the Royal Navy with natural history training, traveling on ships conducting geographical explorations.
In 1845 the British government approved another effort to find the fabled Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. In May of that year the British Naval Northwest Passage Expedition, with Sir Franklin in command, left in two ships: the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror. In 1848, when concern over the safety of Sir Franklin and his crew forced the Admiralty to investigate, Dr Richardson, by then 60 years old, was named commander of the search party. A year later Dr Richardson returned to England, his search unsuccessful. His report was published in 1851 and the book Arctic Searching Expedition became a model for how to arrange all phases of travel, food, shelter, prevention of privation, illness, and injury. The book also described the cultures of various Aboriginal peoples, and the geography, geology, fauna, and flora of Northern America.
In 1855 Dr Richardson retired from active duty but continued to serve informally as consultant on Arctic matters to the Admiralty, published several more books on polar subjects and ichthyology, contributed to the preparation of the new Oxford English Dictionary, and maintained working relationships and close friendships with Charles Darwin, John James Audubon, Thomas Henry Huxley, and other noted naturalists of the time. As a naval surgeon he worked with Florence Nightingale to elevate the standards of the nursing staff, improved the care of mentally ill sailors by moving them from restraints to more humane care in special wards, and pioneered the use of ether and chloroform for general anesthesia. Dr Richardson had three marriages and seven children. He died in 1865 at the age of 78 in Grasmere, Westmorland, England.
During Canada’s 150th birthday year we can acknowledge Dr Richardson’s contributions to the eventual discovery of the Northwest Passage. We can credit his physical stamina and mental qualities, which saved Sir Franklin and his first overland Arctic expedition. Interestingly, during Dr Richardson’s life nothing further was written about his unconfirmed dietary adventure in that extraordinary ordeal. When I closed the notes on Dr Richardson’ biography I sat back for a few minutes admiring the man and all the explorers in Canada’s history. Then I had a little shameless chuckle. Could the saying be true that you become what you eat?
—George Szasz, CM, MD
Johnson RE. Dictionary of Canadian biography, vol 9. Richardson, Sir John. Accessed 15 March 2017. www.biographi.ca/en/bio/richardson_john_9E.html.
Kenyon A. The recorded history of the Liard Basin, 1790–1910. Fort Nelson: Fort Nelson News; 2016.
This posting has not been peer reviewed by the BCMJ Editorial Board.