Lady Jane Franklin, a traveler and endorser of the search for her lost Arctic explorer husband, Sir John Franklin. (The New York Public Library Digital Collections/Public Domain).
On the Scottish island of Unst, boatmen once told stories of an English widow who journeyed out to a tiny, rocky islet on the northernmost point of the British Isles.
Lady Jane Franklin would gaze north across the sea and “send [her] love on wings of prayer” to her long-lost husband Sir John Franklin, the famed Arctic explorer and naval officer who set sail in 1845 in search of the Northwest Passage.
“Those who were there said she stood for some minutes on the somber rock, quite silent, tears falling slowly, and her hands stretched out towards the north,” Jessie Saxby, an author of the region, wrote.
While some stories portray Lady Franklin as a weeping widow and devoted wife, she was much more than that. Lady Franklin was an unrelenting force who propelled the search for her husband, along the way establishing herself as an important figure in polar exploration during the late 19th century.
In 1845, John Franklin (pictured above) led two ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, carrying 129 crew members, into the uncharted territory of the Arctic.
They never returned. The lost expedition remains one of the greatest ongoing mysteries in the history of polar exploration.
This is in part due to Franklin’s second wife, Lady Jane Franklin, a tenacious, well-traveled woman who fueled a series of polar missions to locate the expedition and find out the fate of her husband.
As one newspaper of the era put it, “What the nation would not do, a woman did.”
“The first few [search parties] were created by the British Navy, but when they were unsuccessful, she pushed for American involvement and she actually bought her own ship later on,” says Douglas Kondziolka, a neurosurgeon and professor at New York University Langone Medical Center, who recently presented his collection of Arctic and Antarctic exploration books and documents at the New York Academy of Medicine.