For John Franklin’s first Arctic Expedition of 1819-1822, Scottish surgeon John Richardson was appointed by the British Admiralty to collect information on the geology, flora and fauna of the region, alongside his regular medical duties. In a letter of the 26th of April 1819, Richardson wrote to Franklin with a list of materials necessary for the “collection and preservation of objects of Natural History,” assuring the commander that the least bulky apparatus available had been selected. This was in stark contrast to the botanist Joseph Banks, who in 1772 had been unceremoniously dumped from the second expedition of Captain Cook following demands for a sixteen-strong scientific team complete with their equipment.
Dr. Wollaston’s Goniometer. A handy bit of kit for measuring the angle between different faces of a crystal. Maybe of more use to the serious mineralogist than the causal Sunday walker. William Hyde Wollaston, “Description of a Reflective Goniometer,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 99 (1809): 258.
Richardson’s duties as issued by the Admiralty included the collection of plants, minerals, birds and quadrupeds. The lengthy list of books and equipment attached to his letter to Franklin reflected this broad remit. The majority of Richardson’s list involved geological and topographical interests, including rock hammers, boring irons and a thermometer for measuring the temperature of springs. More complex devices included Dr. Wollaston’s Goniometer for examining crystals and Alexander Adie’s 1818 sympiesometer (an improved version of the barometer). For the biological realm, a microscope, plant press and jars with spirits for the preservation of specimens appeared. Richardson also carried along a small reference library, with works on botany, mycology and a mineralogy manual.
Richardson quickly embraced all aspects of his duties as a naturalist on the expedition, even if his journal reveals a fascination (bordering on obsession) with lichens. Franklin’s expedition had arrived safely at the Hudson’s Bay factory on the 30th August 1819, despite their ship crashing into almost every obstacle in the Hudson’s Straits, including rocks adjoining Resolution Island on three occasions. Seemingly undeterred, Franklin wrote to his superiors from Fort Hudson describing Richardson as having “assiduously availed himself of every opportunity” to collect specimens, accompanied by the expedition illustrators, Mr Back and Mr Hood. During the course of the expedition (and Franklin’s second overland voyage of 1825-1827), Richardson’s collecting would result in the publication of the four-volume Fauna boreali-americana (1829-1837), detailing quadrupeds, birds, fishes and insects. Plants were listed in the two-volume Flora boreali-americana (1829-1840).
From the John Richardson’s Fauna boreali-americana Vol. 4 (Norwich: 1837), Plate VII.
That the majority of Richardson’s list was dedicated to the collection of geological objects and data is unsurprising. Franklin’s expedition would after all travel towards the aptly-named Copper Mine river, on an enterprise of a “purely Public and Scientific nature.” Richardson himself appeared to follow in the Humboldtian tradition of linking species to their geographical region. However, despite the best of intentions and the latest scientific gadgetry, Richardson’s observations and collection of objects of natural history did not go entirely according to plan. Harsh conditions and food shortages led to obvious problems in attempting to maintain a pristine collection of potentially tasty animals. Richardson’s geological specimens were undoubtedly among the first trappings of the expedition to be abandoned on arduous marches. On the positive side, much of the bulkiest equipment would have been left at Fort Chepawyan before the expedition moved onward. Dr. Wollaston’s Goniometer may have survived the voyage in relative safety, rather than being abandoned in the frozen wilderness.
Richardson’s collections from the early stages of the expedition did survive to reach England, bringing him scientific fame and authority on all matters to do with the natural history of the Arctic. Whether it was worth starvation, hypothermia, cannibalism and murder is open to question. But don’t let that put you off! Should you wish to take your own Arctic trip (or visit your nearest National Park), Richardson’s handy kit-list for engaging with nature is reproduced (as accurately as possible) below:
For collecting & preserving of Minerals
Three hammers of two, four and six pounds Weight respectively
Three Chisels of various shapes
Set of small boring Irons
Miners Compass – Blow Pipe – & Dr. Wollastons goniometer
A bag covered with Oil skin, lined with leather
Thin paper, fit for writing upon (Silk or leather paper 2 reams)
Coarse wrapping Paper 4 reams
Thermometer for ascertaining the Temp[erature] of Springs
Adies Sympiesometer for measuring the Altitude of Mountains – This Instrument is stated to be equally correct with the barometer, to be much more portable & not so liable to be broken.
For collecting & preserving Plants
Tin Box varnished – small portable microscope with 2 eye glasses
A Press, consisting of two pieces of a plane tree, each 1 inch thick, 12 inches wide & 18 inches long, with a male and female Screw at each corner.
[Blossom] blotting paper 2 reams – 20 sheets strong pasteboard
3 Reams of Foolscap paper – 6 Quires of wove post paper
For preserving Animals
Paste for preparing skins of quadrupeds & birds
10lbs of [Tow] & Cotton
Several Jars with Spirits (sent from the College of Surgeons)
List of Books
Parsons Synopsis plantarium
Waklenburgs Flora Lapponica
Hooker & Taylors’ Muscologia Britannica – Hooker’s procured
Synopsis Lichenum (if this is not to be got, Lichens universalis)
Turners Synopsis – not to be had
Persoons Synopsis Fungorum
Bridel Muscologia – Last Supplement – not to be procured
Gmelin Systema Natura
Arkens manual of minerology
I know this sounds like a lot to carry about. So bring some friends or hire a local guide! To truly engage in the spirit of nineteenth-century Arctic exploration, you can eat them when the food runs out. Not that you’ll have much space left for sustenance with all this natural history gear.
Davis, Richard C., (ed.) Sir John Franklin’s Journals and Correspondence: The First Arctic Land Expedition 1819-1822 (Toronto, 1995).
MacLeod, Roy, “Discovery and Exploration,” in Peter J. Bowler and John V. Pickstone, The Cambridge History of Science: The Modern Biological and Earth Sciences, Vol. 6. (Cambridge, 2009).
Richardson, John, Fauna boreali-americana Vol. 4 (Norwich: 1837).
Stuart Huston (ed.), Arctic Ordeal: The Journal of John Richardson, Surgeon-Naturalist with Franklin 1820-1822 (Kingston, 1984).
Wollaston, William Hyde, “Description of a Reflective Goniometer,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 99 (1809): 253-258.