Elisha Kent Kane Historical Society

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Dr. Elisha Kent Kane

Charles O. Cowing

 

 

Elisha Kent Kane contracted rheumatic fever during his second year of university. This doubtless led him to the pursuit of medical studies (by age twenty-two, he had published a study of early pregnancy detection in the American Journal of Medical Sciences). Because of this training, he possessed a clear understanding of the clinical implications of the persistent endocarditis left by the disease. Without the benefit of antibiotics, it was the equivalent of a death sentence.

After practicing medicine in Philadelphia briefly, Kane joined the U.S. Navy, hoping to travel the world. His first engagement with the Navy was as physician to the U.S. legation led by Caleb Cushing, assigned to treaty negotiations with China in 1843. This posting afforded Kane travel to Madeira, Rio de Janeiro, Bombay, Ceylon, Macao Roads and Manila. He traveled to the Philippines where he descended into the crater of Taal (a recently active volcano) to retrieve water samples. He was nearly rendered unconscious by the fumes, and barely escaped. Traveling to China, he practiced medicine on a hospital ship in Whampoa for several months before setting off to return home through India and Egypt, Athens and Paris.

Two more tours of stultifying naval duty sent him home, seriously ill. Enervated by inactivity after his recovery, Kane traveled to the White House in October 1847 seeking assignment to duty more stimulating than that of ship’s doctor. He was assigned an extremely dangerous mission: to carry a message to General Winfield Scott, commander of American forces in Mexico City during the Mexican-American War. En route, Kane and the mercenaries hired to escort him became engaged in a skirmish with Mexican forces, commanded by Brigadier General Gaona, former Governor of Puebla. Although Kane’s party got the better of Gaona’s forces, Kane himself received a serious lance wound. In spite of his injury, he successfully restrained his men from murdering Gaona. He then saved the General’s son by stitching up his wounds with the tine of a fork and thread. Gaona insisted upon hosting Kane at his estate for the duration of his recovery from the lance wound. When Kane returned to Philadelphia he was treated like a returning hero.

Upon his return to the States, Kane received assignments aboard the U.S.S. Supply, then the U.S.S. Walker, both unremarkable. Once again bored by this tedious naval duty, on March 20, 1849, he wrote to the Secretary of the Navy volunteering for a proposed mission to the Arctic to rescue the missing British explorer, Sir John Franklin. In mid May he received orders to proceed immediately to New York Harbor to serve as ship’s surgeon with the First Grinnell Expedition, commanded by Lieutenant Edwin J. De Haven. Staffed by U.S. Navy personnel, the brigs Advance and Rescue (whaling vessels refitted for arctic duty by whaling magnate Henry Grinnell) departed New York Harbor on 22 May 1850. Searching for Franklin to the north of Lancaster Sound, they wintered in Wellington Channel. Kane was present at a meeting of De Haven and William Penny (commander of one of four other Franklin searching parties in Lancaster Sound that year) on Beechey Island when three graves of Franklin crewmen (exhumed and autopsied in 1984 by Owen Beattie) were found.

Notwithstanding the challenges of scurvy and the depressing Arctic night, the men of the First Grinnell survived the experience well. After breaking free of the ice in early June, De Haven continued searching for Franklin on their way back to New York, where they docked on September 30, 1851.

From November 1851 through May 1853, Kane spoke often before large audiences (including three lectures at the fledgling Smithsonian in Washington, DC). As his oratorical skill grew, he began to actively campaign for the mounting of a second Grinnell expedition in search of Franklin who must be, Kane postulated, trapped in the Open Polar Sea to the north of Ellesmere and Greenland. Despite the demands of his lecture schedule he worked furiously on a book on the first expedition. Additionally, he had time to fall in love (to the dismay of his family) with a celebrity psychic, Margaret Fox.

On 31 May 1853, Grinnell’s brig Advance (formerly named the Augusta) sailed again from New York Harbor, this time under Kane’s command. Eighteen were on board: John Wall Wilson, Henry Brooks, James McGary, August Sonntag, William Morton, Amos Bonsall, Christian Ohlsen, George Stephenson, Henry Goodfellow, George Whipple, George Riley, William Godfrey, Jefferson Baker, John Blake, Isaac I. Hayes, M.D., Peter Schubert, and Thomas Hickey. While not a U.S. Navy crew, the mission has anecdotally been referred to as the "masonic mission". Kane then took on two more crewmen in Greenland: Hans Hendrik and Carl Peterson. They were heading for Smith Sound, racing to get there before Sir Edward Inglefield, travelling from England in his steam-powered ship. Kane and his men made it through Smith Sound and literally dragged the Advance thirty miles north (into what is now Kane Basin) before being beset by the ice on 26 August at 78° 37’ N, 71° W. There they remained trapped for twenty-one months. Schubert and Baker died in the spring of 1854 from frostbite complications incurred while on a depot-provisioning mission to Ellesmere Island.

During this period, Kane kept meteorological records according to protocols unused in polar initiatives until the twentieth century. He also conducted geographical surveys as far north as Kennedy Channel to 80° 58’, charting the western coast of Greenland and detailing the Humboldt Glacier. The results of these scientific surveys comprise the appendices of his book, Arctic Explorations, 1853, ’54, ’55.

The realization that the ice was not releasing the Advance during the summer of 1854 cast a pall over the mission. The chances of survival through another arctic night seemed negligible. In the course of this increasingly desperate situation, Kane managed to keep his men alive with no small amount of help from the Etah Inuit whose summer hunting grounds were nearby. Kane had nurtured a delicate trading arrangement with the natives throughout the mission, which paid off mightily in August of 1854. Late that month, nine of Kane’s strongest men seceded from the Advance to attempt escape to the south. Not only did the "esquimeaux" take Kane and his remaining men on life-sustaining hunting trips, but when the escape party failed in December, the natives returned the debilitated men to the brig through the arctic night.

Upon the return of the secession party to the Advance in December, Kane began carefully to marshal his resources in anticipation of abandoning the brig and struggling back to Upernavik, Greenland, eight hundred miles to the south. Five months later, on 20 May 1855, they began their trek. Kane’s hugely successful book, Arctic Explorations, 1853, ’54, ’55 details the privations and hardships the survivors endured. The efforts connected with the writing of the account of the second mission (abetted by the "dragon within" of his chronic endocarditis) killed him twenty months later.

Kane’s attention to diplomatic issues, such as his relationship with the Inuit as well as his humane handling of the secession episode, provides insight into the quality of leadership that eventually returned seventeen of his twenty men to civilization (a third crewman: Ohlsen, died accidentally on the trek south).

Upon Kane’s death in Havana at the age of thirty-seven, the Governor of Cuba personally escorted the cortege as far as New Orleans. From New Orleans to Cincinnati, the banks of the Mississippi were lined with mourners, and the train trip from Cincinnati to Philadelphia took nearly four days because of the throngs on the tracks. His funeral was the largest in American history, eclipsed by Lincoln's a half-decade later. Kane’s work in the Arctic marked the beginning of scientific investigation in the region, as well as initiating the United States’ seventy-five year growth to dominance in the field of Polar Exploration.

 

Biographical Data:

 

Elisha Kent Kane was born 3 February 1820; Philadelphia, PA to John Kintzing Kane, Attorney General, State of Pennsylvania (1845-1846), later Judge of U.S. District Court of Eastern Pennsylvania, J. K. Kane served the American Philosophical Society as Secretary, (1828-1848); as Vice-President (1848-1857), then as President (1858). J.K. Kane also served as Master of Franklin Lodge #128, Free and Accepted Masons. E.K. Kane’s mother was Jane Duval Leiper Kane. Kane attended the University of Virginia, (1837-1839), then enrolled as a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in March 1842. His principal expeditions were the first Grinnell Expedition in search of Sir John Franklin, (1851-1852), and the Second Grinnell Expedition, (1853-1855). Kane’s publications include: "Experiments on Kiestine with Remarks on its Application to the Diagnosis of Pregnancy, " American Journal of Medical Sciences, n.s., 4 (1842), The U. S. Grinnell Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin, A Personal Narrative, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1854, and Arctic Explorations in the Years 1853, ’54, ’55, Philadelphia: Childs and Peterson, 1856. Although alleged by Margaret Fox, spiritualist, to have proposed to her, no record of an actual marriage exists. Although anecdotes persist of a child born out of wedlock, no confirmed record can be found. Kane died 16 February 1857 in Havana, Cuba of strokes, presumably brought on by endocarditis traceable to his bouts of rheumatic fever earlier in life.

Charles O. Cowing, December 2001

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