Elisha Kent Kane (3 Feb. 1820-16 Feb. 1857)

Elisha K. Kane was born in Philadelphia, PA. His father was Judge John Kintzing Kane (1795-1858), who was a key figure in national Democratic politics in the early nineteenth century. His mother was Jane Duval (Leiper) Kane (1796-1866).

Elisha enrolled in the University of Virginia in sessions 15-16 (1838-1840), but only attended in session 15. He studied physics, geology, mineralogy, and civil engineering, but due to severe attacks of rheumatic fever in 1838 and 1839, he decided upon a less physically active career and began to study medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall of 1839. He graduated with his M.D. in March 1842. (Sawin) Dr. Kane was appointed an assistant surgeon in the U.S. Navy the next year.

In late spring of 1850, the United States Navy sent out a two-ship mission — the Grinnell Expedition — to search for Sir John Franklin, whose Arctic expedition had disappeared in July 1845. Dr. Elisha Kane was the surgeon on the USS Advance. Though they did not discover the fate of Franklin, they did find the remains of the 1845-46 winter camp of the Franklin expedition on Beechey Island. The Grinnell expedition went as far north as Devin Island, finally returning to New York in Sep. 1851. Dr. Kane wrote a book about this expedition, entitled The United States Grinnell Expedition in search of Sir John Franklin.

According to Sawin, Kane never married, but he met Margaret Fox, the noted spirit medium, between his two expeditions. Letters he wrote to Fox indicate they planned to marry when he returned from the second expedition. Fox stated that they had exchanged secret marriage vows in 1856, but his family denied this after his death. [N.b. I highly recommend Sawin’s thesis for a detailed discussion of Kane’s and Fox’s relationship.]

In May 1853, Dr. Kane organized and commanded a second Grinnell expedition. On this expedition Kane discovered and named Humboldt Glacier. Their ship, again the USS Advance, became locked in the ice in the summer of 1854. Unable to get her free, Kane and the crew started a three-month trek across the ice and open water on 1 May 1855, taking only their small escape boats. They were finally rescued when a Danish whaling ship picked them  up in August 1855. Kane wrote another book about this expedition, titled Arctic explorations. He received numerous honors and several medals from Congress, the Royal Geographic Society, and the Société de Géographie.

The fate of Sir John Franklin was discovered by neither expedition. A note later discovered at the Beechey Island camp states that Sir John died on 11 June 1847. Later archaeological and anthropological research suggests that the men probably died of starvation, lead poisoning, and scurvy, among other causes. (Keenleyside et al.)

Kane had always been described as “fragile” in health. As a young man he had had rheumatic fever, which damages the heart. On his two expeditions to the Arctic, all the men suffered from scurvy and malnutrition. On the recommendation of his doctor, Kane decided to go to Havana, Cuba, in the hopes that the warm climate would help him recover. However, en route he had a stroke. Once in Cuba, he had another stroke, and died in February 1857. He was interred in the Kane Family Crypt in Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA.


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