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John Hartnell was an English seaman who took part in Sir John Franklin's Northwest Passage expedition and was one of its first casualties, dying of suspected zinc deficiency and malnourishment during the expedition's first year. He was buried on Beechey Island, next to John Torrington, who became the expedition's first fatality on News Year's Day of 1846, William Braine, who died three months on 3 April; the expedition had not yet run into trouble at this time and proper burials in the Arctic permafrost could be afforded. Because of the region's icy conditions, he was found in a remarkably well-preserved state when a scientific expedition exhumed his remains in 1984 to determine a cause of death. John Hartnell was born in Kent to a family of shipbuilders, his parents were Thomas and Sarah Hartnell who were married at Frindsbury, in the Medway Towns area of Kent, on 9 October 1815, with whom he was living in Gillingham at the time of the census of 1841. Together with his brother Thomas he was assigned to HMS Erebus as an able seaman on the Franklin Northwest Passage expedition.
They set off from Greenhithe on 19 May 1845 with the other being HMS Terror. The trip was expected to last about three years, so the ships were packed with provisions that included more than 136,000 pounds of flour, 3,684 imperial gallons of high-proof alcohol, 33,000 pounds of tinned meat and vegetables. However, the expedition was never heard from again after July 1845. Pathology reports suggest that Hartnell had a damaged right eye, it is unclear whether this happened before or after his death. According to his grave marker, Hartnell died on Beechey Island, on 4 January 1846, at the age of 25. In 1852, an expedition sent to find his men arrived at Beechey Island. Commanded by Edward A. Inglefield, the crew of the Isabel included a physician, Peter Sutherland. Inglefield published a journal reporting their findings. In 1984, professor of anthropology Owen Beattie from the University of Alberta and a group of scientists arrived at Beechey Island to examine the bodies and determine what may have happened to the three men whose lives ended on the tiny speck of land in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.
One of Hartnell's distant relatives, Hartnell's great-great-nephew, physics professor Brian Spencely, was the expedition's photographer. Beattie was surprised to see Hartnell's well-preserved, mummified remains through the melting ice, he was more surprised to see that Hartnell's body had been autopsied. Beattie and his team noticed that Hartnell's right eye seemed damaged beyond the sinking-into-the-sockets effect that would have occurred from prior thawing; when Hartnell's cap was removed, they saw a great deal of hair – used to determine that his body contained large amounts of lead at the time of his death. However, a 2016 analysis conducted on samples of Hartnell's removed fingernail and toenail found that malnourishment and zinc deficiency may have been his actual cause of death. Hartnell's brother, played by Jack Colgrave Hirst, is a supporting character in the television adaptation of the novel The Terror, the burial of the three crewmen on Beechey Island is mentioned in the first episode.
Beattie, O.. Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition. Vancouver: Greystone Books. ISBN 9781771640800. Latta, J. B.. The Franklin Conspiracy: An Astonishing Solution to the Lost Arctic Expedition. Toronto: Dundurn. ISBN 9781770700307