Darkest hour

Ideas | Greenlandic polar explorer died struggling to use excrement to prime a stove that may have saved him, scientists suggest

Jørgen Brønlund

Kevin McGwin

A century-old, almost microscopic, fleck found on the final page of a Greenlandic polar explorer’s logbook tells a story of a desperate and confused effort to remain alive after a successful, but ultimately doomed, attempt to prove that territory claimed by the United States at the end of the 19th century was, in fact, contiguous with the northernmost part of Greenland, scientists say.

Chemical analysis of the 3mm by 3mm particle found in Jørgen Brønlund’s 1907 logbook, described in a paper published in the current edition of Archeometry, a journal, indicates that it contains burnt rubber, various oils, petroleum and what is probably Brønlund’s own excrement, a sign that, despite reaching a supply depot that could have ensured his survival, he had likely become too frostbitten, too fatigued and too hungry to light a petroleum burner.

Instead, Brønlund is believed to have died while sheltering in a shallow cave shortly after scribbling a final, infamous, entry in his logbook: “Deceased 79 Fjord after attempt at return over ice sheet during November I arrive here in decreasing moonlight and cannot proceed further due to frostbitten feet and darkness.”

“The new findings offer unique insights into Brønlund’s last hours,” said the lead author of the paper, Kaare Lund Rasmussen, a chemist with SDU, a Danish university. “I can almost envision how he, weakened and with dirty, shaking hands, fumbled in an attempt to light the burner, ultimately failing.”

An enlarged picture of 3mm x 3mm fleck taken from Jørgen Brønlund’s logbook. A recent analysis suggests it is composed of rubber, various oils, petroleum and excrement (Kaare Lund Rasmussen / SDU)

With Brønlund’s death, also lost were the precise location of the remains of the other two other members of his team, Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen and Niels Peter Høegh Hagen, as well as further details about the fateful turn of events that delayed them from beginning their return from Independence Fjord, on Greenland’s northern coast, to the basecamp of the Denmark Expedition, of which they were a part, by several months. Also unknown is why the three crossed the ice cap instead of taking a coastal route, which had been supplied by other members of the expedition with provisions in preparation for their return.

When the trio perished, they had covered about half of the approximately 900km between Independence Fjord and the expedition’s base at Danmarkshavn, on Greenland’s eastern coast.

While Brønlund had fuel, there was no alcohol that he could use to pre-heat the burner. Warming up a burner without alcohol is possible, but difficult, according Rasmussen, and the chemical makeup of the fleck suggests Brønlund was trying to use whatever he could get his hands on to get it going.

Members of the 1902-1904 Denmark Literary Expedition to Greenland, including Jørgen Brønlund (left) and Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen (center). To Mylius-Erichsen’s left is legendary polar explorer Knud Rasmussen (Kgl. Bibliotek)

The burnt rubber probably came from a charred gasket on the burner, which was found in 1973. The organic materials, meanwhile, would stem from the petroleum he was trying to burn and, most likely, some form of vegetable oil animal fat, as well as excrement.

That Brønlund was forced to resort to using his own excrement as a fuel is, according to the paper, an indication of his state shortly before his death.

“At this time, Brønlund had starved for weeks, was tired beyond his capacity, and he was freezing. It is likely that his hands were shaking when he used the matches from the depot to pre-heat and turn on the stove in the small cave.”

The final entry in Jørgen Brønlund’s logbook, undated, but written in late November / early December 1907: “Deceased 79 Fjord after attempt at return over ice sheet during November I arrive here in decreasing moonlight and cannot proceed further due to frostbite in feet and darkness. Other bodies are in the middle of fjord, in front of glacier (approx. 2 1⁄2 mil). Hagen died November 15 and Mylius about 10 days later. – Jørgen Brønlund” (Kgl. Bibliotek)
A burner assumed to be the one that Jørgen Brønlund unsuccessfully tried to light. Discovered in 1973 (Jørn Ladegaard)

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