Polar Explorers

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Over the years there have been anecdotes about Inuit taboos against eating polar bear livers, and a scattering of reports by arctic and antarctic explorers about the consequences of eating polar bear (and huskie) livers. Here I have documented the experiences of some explorers with toxic livers. In terms of the psychological effects of Vitamin A, it is worth noting that depression is not mentioned as an effect of eating toxic livers; CNS effects are common, however, such as vertigo, irratibility, and hallucinations.

For a recent review see:

O’Donnell, J. Polar Hysteria: An expression of hypervitaminosis A. Amer. J.Therapeutics. 11(2004):507-516. PMID 15543093

1597 Gerrit de Veer

“The three voyages of William Barents to the arctic regions (1594, 1595, 1596)” (book (Strozier G690 1594 .V4152 1970) and electronic version available at FSU. 1880's version available from Project Gutenberg.)

Quoting O’Donnell:

The 1597 diary of Gerrit de Veer, which he wrote while taking refuge in the winter in Nova Zembla during an attempt to reach Indonesia by the northern passage, states that he and his men became gravely ill after eating polar-bear liver. They feared for their lives but ultimately recovered. De Veer's diary also notes widespread and striking desquamation during recovery.”

need to find: Roeper V, Wildeman D, eds. Om de Noord: De tochten van Willem Barentsz en Jacob van Heemskerck en de overwintering op Nova Zembla zoals opgetekend door Gerrit de Veer. Nijmegen, the Netherlands: Uitgeverij SUN, 1996. (assuming I can read it).

1855 Elisha Kane


Kane, E.K. Arctic Explorations. The second Grinnell expedition in search of Sir John Franklin, 1853, 1854, 1855. Ed. Loomis, C. and Martin, C. R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co, Chicago: 1996.

Kane is often cited as the source for Vitamin A overdose inducing depression. However, while Kane often mentions “depression” among the men, it is only in the context of the mental state brought on by being stranded in the polar ice with diminishing supplies and increasing illness and fatalities (not polar bear liver consumption). He does state the polar bear liver (of a well-fed cub) could bring on illness. Kane and the crew often fed on their huskies as well, but there is no mention of illness as found by Mawson (below). ( the Donnelly edition is abridged; I should go look at the original. I think there is a scanned version on line someplace).

Quoting from Kane: (p. 222-3)

When I was out in the Advance with Captain De Haven, I satisfied myself that it was a vulgar prejudice to regard the liver of the bear as poisoinous. I ate of it freely myself and succeeded in making it a favorite dish with the mess. But I find to my cost that it may sometimes be more savory than safe. The cub’s liver was my supper last night, and today I have symptoms of poison in full measure – vertigo, diarrhea, and their concomitants.

Quoting from Kane (p. 220):

Bears in this lean condition are much the most palatable food. The impregnation of fatty oil through the cellular tissue makes a well-fed bear nearly uneatable. The flesh of a famished beast, although less nutritious as a fuel diet, is rather sweet and tender than otherwise.”

Quoting from Kane (p. 264-5):

I do not know that my journal anywhere mentions our habituation to raw meats, nor does it dwell oupon their strange adaptation to scorbutic disease. Our journeys have taught us the wisdom of the Esquimaux appetite, and ther are few among us who do not relish a slice of raw blubber or a chunk of frozen walrus beef. The liver or a walrus (awuktannuk) eaten with little slices of his fat – of a verity it is a delicious morsel. Fire would ruin the curt, pithy expression of vitality that belons to its uncooked juices.Charles Lamb’s roast pig was nothing to awuktanuk.”

On the other hand, on p. 265

Our sick have finished the bear’s head and are now eating the condemned abscessed liver of the animal, including some intestines that were not given to the dogs.

(insert image of "Polar Bear Polka", sheet music lith. of Sarony, Major & Knapp, dedicated to Kane, 1856, from the U.Penn collection of sheet music).

1911 Douglas Mawson & Xavier Mertz

In 1911-12, while exploring the Antarctic coast, Australian Douglas Mawson and Swiss Xavier Mertz lost their supplies when their companion Briton Belgrave Ninnis fell into a cravasse. Mawson and Mertz were forced to eat their huskies.

Cleland J, Southcott RV. Hypervitaminosis A in the Antarctic in the Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911-1914: a possible explanation of the illness of Mertz and Mawson. Med J Aust 1969; 1: 1337-1342.

Shearman DJ. Vitamin A and Sir Douglas Mawson. BMJ 1978; 1: 283-285. PMID 340007

Nataraja, A. Man’s best friend? Student BMJ 10 (2002)158-9. A summary of Mawson, D., Fiennes, R. Home of the blizzard, a true storyof Antarctic survival.Edinburgh:Birlinn,2000. (Both Mawson and Fiennes have books describing their antartic experiences, which are in Strozier Library)

Quoting from Nataraja’s article:

Mawson, who was becoming increasingly irritable (which he attributed to the situation),noticed a dramatic change in his travelling companion. Mertz seemed to lose the will to move and wished only to remain in his sleepingbag. Mawson tried desperately to encourage his friend, refusing to leave him, despite the realisation that this decision may well cost him his life. Mertz began to deteriorate rapidly with diarrhoea and madness. Mawson graphically describes how Mertz thrust his own little finger into his mouth, crunched on it, looking indis- gust as he spat his severed digit onto the floor of the tent. This was soon followed by violent raging—Mawson had to sit on his companion’s chest and hold down his arms to prevent him damaging their tent — and by seizures, coma, and then death..”


Just 100g of husky liver contains the toxic dose of vitamin A for an adult male. With six dogs between them(with a liver on average weighing 1kg), the pair would have ingested around 60 toxic doses between them. Mawson ate far less liver than Mertz which, in all probability, is why Mertz was more seriously (indeed, fatally) affected. Mawson preferred to give the comparatively tender meat to his travelling companion, who could not bear to chew on the otherwise very tough flesh of his beloved dogs.

The case of Mertz is discussed by Carrington-Smith, who suggests that Mertz's symptoms can be accounted for by severe food deprivation, rather than vitamin toxicity. Her article has a nice concise summary of both polar cases and clinical cases of hypervitamintosis A.

Carrington-Smith, D. Mawson and Mertz: a re-evaluation of their ill-fated mapping journey during the 1911–1914 Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Med. J. Australia, 183 (2005) 638-641

Levels of Vitamin A in Arctic Animals

Some references I need to look up:

Cleland JB, Southcott RV 1969 Illnesses following the eating of seal liver in Australian waters. Med J Aust. 1:760-3. PMID 581408

Feeney RE. Polar journeys: the role of food and nutrition in early exploration. Washington, DC: American Chemical Society, and Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1997. DIRAC TX601 .F44 1997

Lewis, R. W., and J. A. Lentfer. 1967. The vitamin A content of polar bear liver: range and variability. Compar. Biochem. Physiol. 22:923-926.

Rodahl, K. 1949. Toxicity of polar bear liver. Nature 164:530. PMID 18141621

Rodahl, K. 1950 Hypervitaminosis A in the rat. J Nutr. 41:399-421 PMID 15428909

Rodahl, K. and A.W. Davies. 1949 Vitamin A in seals. Biochem J. 45:408-12 PMID 15394431

Rodahl, K., and T. Moore. 1943. The vitamin A content and toxicity of bear and seal liver. Biochemical Journal 37:166­68. PMID 16747610

Russell, F. E. 1967. Vitamin A content of polar bear liver. Toxicon 5:61­62 PMID 6036254

Southcott R, Chesterfield N, Lugg D. Vitamin A content in the livers of huskies and some seals from Antarctic and subantarctic regions. Med J Aust 1971; 1: 311-313. PMID 5102012