Adventurous Fellows: Part Three

As we follow the voyages of some adventurous Fellows, join Curator of Artefacts Glenn Benson as he looks at the Society's connections with the lost Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage

Published on 8th June 2020

The Lost Expedition

All well. Party consisting of 2 officers and 6 men left the Ships on Monday 24 May 1847.

Ross and Richardson medallions

The likenesses of Sir James Clark Ross FLS (Left) and Sir John Richardson FLS (Right) are preserved in the artefacts collection of the Linnean Society. Glenn Benson

So wrote Sir John Franklin FLS (1786–1847) in his diary a little over two years after setting sail from Greenhithe in Kent to find the infamous Northwest Passage, in what is now the Canadian Arctic. Nineteen days later, he and the other men were dead. The expedition on board the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror ultimately claimed the lives of all 129 crew, and the story continues to fascinate many to this day.

Franklin, who hailed from Lincolnshire in England’s East Midlands, started his naval career at the young age of 12, to his father’s chagrin. After a successful voyage on a merchant ship, Franklin joined the Royal Navy, and his many voyages supported famous naval heroes of the day like Horatio Nelson, and Matthew Flinders on the HMS Investigator (a name which, ironically, will resurface later in this story). Briefly Lieutenant-Governor of Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) in 1837, in 1845 Franklin’s ill-fated journey to find the Northwest Passage would become known as ‘Franklin’s lost expedition’. The voyage was an attempt to establish a northern trade route from the Atlantic to Asia, and Franklin’s expedition had been close to success when they became stranded in pack ice; it is believed they eventually perished through the cold, starvation, and diseases like botulism and scurvy. Many attempts were made at a rescue, but we will only touch upon those led by Fellows of the Society.

Franklin became a Fellow of the Linnean Society on 15 November 1836. The connections, however, don’t end there. At least two other Fellows are involved in the story, at different times: Sir James Clark Ross FLS (1800–62) and Sir John Richardson FLS (1787–1865)—both were naval men interested in natural history. Their portrait medallions in the artefact collection of the Society have intrigued me for a long time, and thanks to the COVID-19 lockdown, I have had the chance to explore them.

Sir James Clark Ross FLS

Ross Large Eyed Seal

The Ross seal, or Ross large-eyed seal (Ommatophoca rossii), from The zoology of the voyage of the H.M.S. Erebus & Terror (1844-75). Biodiversity Heritage Library

Born in London in April of 1800, a 12-year-old James Clark Ross had also already decided upon a naval career, eventually accompanying his uncle, Sir John Ross (1777–1856), an officer in the Royal Navy, on his own Arctic expedition and attempt to find the Northwest Passage in 1818. It was during his uncle’s second Arctic voyage that James Clark Ross located the North Magnetic Pole in June 1831. Later, in 1839, he would lead his own expedition, but this time in the extreme south, where he charted most of Antarctica’s coastline.

A strait, mountain, island, dependency, ship, ice shelf, and even a lunar crater, are all now named after him. He also lends his name to the Ross’s Gull (Rhodostethia rosea) and the Ross seal (Ommatophoca rossii).

Search of Sir John Franklin c. NPG

The Arctic Council planning a search for Sir John Franklin by Stephen Pearce, oil on canvas, 1851 (NPG 1208). Sir James Clark Ross FLS can be seen standing centrally, fourth from the left, with Sir John Richardson FLS standing side on, second from the right. National Portrait Gallery

Ross might also have perished as part of the Franklin Expedition of 1845–47 had he not turned down command of one of the ships that took part in order to placate his new wife. Ross commanded his last voyage in 1848–9 on board the HMS Enterprise and HMS Investigator (a different ship to that of Flinders’); it was the first search for the lost Franklin expedition and came within 180 miles of the point of where Franklin’s ships had been abandoned.

Ross was elected to Fellowship of the Linnean Society on 3 February 1824. He was also a Fellow of the Royal Society, Royal Astronomical Society and Royal Geographical Society. All a far cry from the 18-year-old Ross who, according to Sir John, was ‘a source of mirth’ for bringing the skeleton of a whale on to his ship thinking it might be the remains of a mammoth. (Sir John Ross went on to lead the third expedition to try and locate the lost Franklin crew in 1850.)

Sir John Richardson FLS

Royal Naval Hospital Haslar c. Wellcome Collection

The huge Royal Naval Hospital Haslar in Gosport, Hampshire, where Richardson was the chief medical officer. Wellcome Collection CC BY 4.0

Sir John Richardson achieved fame as a surgeon and as a naturalist, undertaking two Arctic land expeditions led by Sir John Franklin in 1819–22 and 1825–27. (He later led the second of the three searches of the Arctic for the lost Franklin expedition in 1848.) He was a true generalist, being competent in geology, mammalogy, ichthyology, botany and lichenology. He wrote three of the four volumes of Fauna Boreali-Americana (1829, 1831, 1836) and contributed, along with James Drummond (1786/7–1863), many of the plants for Sir William Jackson Hooker’s (1785–1865) Flora Boreali-Americana (1840). Richardson became a Fellow of the Linnean Society the year after Ross, on 15 February 1825.

If all this was not enough, he was the chief medical officer at the Royal Naval Hospital Haslar in Gosport, which took 16 years to construct and was described by Dr James Lind (who identified that scurvy could be cured by eating citrus fruits) as ‘an immense pile of a building and when complete it will certainly be the biggest hospital in Europe!’. While at the hospital Richardson improved the treatment of mental health in sailors and introduced general anaesthesia into naval surgery. To me, what really makes him an ‘Adventurous Fellow’ is that on Christmas Day 1826, in seeking out Thomas Drummond (the assistant naturalist on the second Franklin expedition) to chart the spring bird migration along the Saskatchewan River, he decided to walk 900 miles in the snow, arriving at his destination on 12 February 1827.

The last link

James Clark Ross medallion c. NPG

The National Portrait Gallery's plaster medallion of Sir James Clark Ross FLS. National Portrait Gallery

These plaster medallions of Ross (1843) and Richardson (1842) hang near each other on the wall of the Library annex. They are by the sculptor Bernhard Smith (1820–85) who specialised in carved portrait medallions. Incidentally, three of his brothers served as naval officers.

There are identical copies of these medallions in the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London, and all four medallions were given by botanist Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker FLS (1817–1911), son of Sir William Jackson Hooker FLS, in 1892. (Fittingly, Joseph Dalton Hooker had been the botanist on the Ross Expedition of 1839–43, which resulted in his botanical monograph Flora Antarctica, 1843–59.) The Society’s Proceedings record the medallions as being donated on 3 March 1892.

Sir John Franklin Statue

Matthew Noble's statue of Sir John Franklin at Waterloo Place in London. Wikimedia/ChrisO

A monument to Sir John Franklin, and to all those lost in the expedition of 1845–7, stands in Waterloo Place, not that far from the Society. Erected in 1866 and sculpted by Matthew Noble (1817–76), it features a fitting sentence from Sir John Richardson:

They forged the last link with their lives.

Poignantly, Franklin’s monument faces that to Robert Falcon Scott (1868–1912), naval officer and Antarctic explorer, who, like Franklin, is probably more famous today for his death than his achievements.

When these plaster medallions caught my attention on the wall of the Society, I never imagined what an adventure they would take me on, albeit from the comfort of my dining room table in warm sunny south east London.


1890–1892. Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London.

Davis, R.C. (Ed.) 1996. Lobsticks and Stone Cairns: Human Landmarks in the Arctic. Calgary: University of Calgary Press.

Roscoe, I., Hardy, E. & Sullivan, M.G. 2009. A Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain 1660–1851. London and New York: Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and The Henry Moore Foundation.

Savours, A. 1962. Sir James Clark Ross (1800–1862). The Geographical Journal 128(3): 325–27.

Stewart, D.A. 1931. Sir John Richardson: Surgeon, Physician, Sailor, Explorer, Naturalist, Scholar. The British Medical Journal 1(3654): 110–12.

Stuart Houston, C. 1983. John Richardson (1787–1865). Arctic 36(4): 376–7.