Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Good Surgeon Is In: Alexander McDonald's Portrait and Prose

Richard Beard's daguerreotypes of Sir John Franklin and some of his officers give us a privileged glimpse into a world of wonder. These images help to provide an identity and soul to each of the heroic men the represent. That is why the absence of images for the officers of HMS Terror (with the exception of Captain Crozier) is so frustrating. We yearn to put faces with those names of yore. Fortunately, an acquisition by the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, UK, has helped us do just that, at least for one man: Assistant Surgeon Alexander McDonald.

McDonald's portrait, painted by an unknown artist circa 1840, was acquired by the NMM in late 2008. You can read about the acquisition and view a high-quality image of it HERE. You can also purchase a print of the portrait and read some brief biographical info HERE. Another article from the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, further illuminates the brief life of this intellectually gifted young man.

The surgeon had served in the Arctic on a whaler prior to joining the Franklin Expedition and published an account of his journey with the lengthy title A Narrative of Some Passages in the History of Eenoolooapik, a Young Eskimaux. You can read it HERE. The book includes important ethnographic information on the Inuit, and while I have not yet read it, I recommended it wholeheartedly. It is a historical gem.

Looking at the portrait of the boyish McDonald, it is incomprehensible to think that he would perish under terrible circumstances a mere few years after sitting before the unknown artist's canvas, his mind full of hope and unrealized dreams.


  1. It is amazing!! It is just as you have described. He looks as inocent as a child in this portrait. Taking a look at the book you mentioned the first thing that you find is a captivating picture of Eenoolooapik, which throw you to a need of reading the book inmediately.

    However, as my impatience is greater than my available time, I´ve found his biography here to make me an idea:


    It seems that was William Penny (the whaler) who carried (voluntarily) him to Scotland on board to the whaler "Neptune". He helped to make accurate maps of the shores of Baffin Island for the use of the whalers, which were experiencing the lack of whales in southern seas. I wonder If James Reid was in that whaler ship altogether with McDonald in that trip.

    Eenoolooapik came back home and he was considered as one of the first Inuit travelers. Unfortunately he died of consumption as his biography says (I don´t know what this mean exactly) in the summer of 1847, the same season that John Franklin died (casuality).

    1. I was astounded after I read that McDonald had already graduated when this portrait was painted!

      Thanks for the link to Eenoolooapik's biography. He had quite a few adventures in his short life! One of his sisters was Tookoolito (called "Hannah" by C.F. Hall)--incredible!

      Consumption was the old term for tuberculosis, as it caused weight loss that seemed to "consume" the body of the afflicted.