Mysterious 18th-century sailors’ deaths could be solved

Saskatchewan scientists search for lead traces to solve mysterious deaths. The Culprit: perhaps too much rum.

The mysterious deaths of thousands of British sailors due to illness in the 1700s and early 1800s may soon be solved by Canadian researchers studying bone fragments.

Anthropologist Tamara Varney said historians have long believed a high death rate among members of the British Royal Navy and at a time when the navy dominated the Caribbean was due to alcoholism and lead poisoning.

The Canadian researchers hope they may be on the verge of proving that theory.

Varney has submitted soldiers’ bone fragments to scientists working with Saskatchewan’s Canadian Light Source synchrotron particle accelerator — a football pitch-sized microscope capable of looking past the atomic scale.

They hope to find traces of lead metal absorbed biologically in the bone when it was alive.

“We can link trace elements such as lead from the environment with discreet biological events, which is the key to understanding whether that lead arrived in the bone biologically, or in the burial environment,” said bone specialist Dr. David Cooper.

For the original report go to http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/story/2012/04/26/tech-british-navy-bone-lead.html

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