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Elisha Kane was a physician and explorer from the United States who served in the U.S. Navy. He participated in two Arctic search and rescue attempts to locate the explorer, Sir John Franklin, but did not succeed and never learned what happened. Elisha Kane also discovered the Kennedy Channel ice-free and was later followed by fellow explorers, including Robert E. Peary, Isaac Israel Hayes, and others. The US Kane and USNS Kane are named for him.

Young Life and Education

Elisha Kent Kane was born February 3, 1820, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as the eldest child of Johne Kintzing Kane, a district judge, and Jane Duval Leiper. He was the oldest of one daughter and six sons.[1] The Kane family was well-known in Washington and Philadelphia.[2]

In 1837, Kane enrolled in the University of Virginia in Charlottesville to study civil engineering. In his second year, he suffered a severe case of rheumatic fever that forced him to leave the university and permanently damaged his heart. By 1839, he started studying medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He performed his residency at the Blockley Almshouse hospital and graduated in March 1842. Kane then applied to serve with the U.S. Navy on his father’s suggestion.[3]

Early Naval Career

Johne Kane arranged for his son to be commissioned as a naval surgeon without Elisha’s knowledge. Elisha went to Philadelphia Navy Yard to take the assignment exam and passed. In May 1843, he received his first assignment. It sent him to China as physician for the first U.S. diplomatic mission with Caleb Cushing. When trade negotiations ended in June 1844, Kane took leave of the Cushing Commission and remained in China. He stayed for six months and he and a young English surgeon operated a hospital boat. It proved financially successful, but Kane contracted cholera.[4]

Dr. Kane returned to the United States in 1845 via Egypt and Europe. Since his commission to naval service began July 1, 1843, he soon set sail for many different posting in the Mediterranean, the west coast of Africa, and the east coast of the U.S. His trip to Africa ended quickly after he contracted another illness and had to return. Kane recovered and requested transfer to the army to fight in the Mexican War, and they offered him the position as messenger from President James Polk to General Winfield Scott.

Kane saved the life of Mexican General Antonio Gaona during the fighting and the family repaid him by letting him recover in their home from “congestive typhus fever.” Kane was honorably discharged due to his medical complications. He sailed on several ships as their physician, the Supply and the Walker, until early 1850. The first sailed around the Mediterranean, Lisbon, and to Rio de Janeiro. The second took him to Mobile Bay with the coastguard.[5]

The First Franklin Expedition

Elisha Kane’s medical knowledge helped saved the majority of the men on the expeditions he accompanied.

When talk of a U.S. expedition to search for Sir John Franklin, who disappeared in the Arctic in 1845, began in March 1850, Elisha Kane applied to serve as the mission’s surgeon. On May 22, 1850, Kane joined the crew of the Advance under Lieutenant Edwin De Haven, one of ten ships setting out to find Sir Franklin.

The ship, supplied by Henry Grinnell, searched Baffin Bay for Franklin, but all that was found was evidence of an encampment on the coast of Cape Riley and another on Beechey Island between August 25-27. De Haven’s crew continued up the Wellington Channel to find the Northwest Passage. In early September, arctic storms and ice formed around the many ships and trapped them in an ice sheet slowly drifting north. When they broke free, ice formed around the ships again and they began floating south and, by October 1, the crew of the Advance understood they faced the winter frozen on the Arctic Sea.

Dr. Elisha Kane saved his shipmates who fell extremely ill with scurvy. He forced them to exercise and increased their rations, which allowed them to wait until the ice sheet pushed them out of the Wellington Channel, through Lancaster Sound, and down to Baffin Bay. On June 5, 1851, the ice released the Advance and they replenished supplies in Upernavik, Greenland before returning to the Arctic again. De Haven and his crew tried again in July, but encountered large ice sheets again. They abandoned their quest by mid-August and sailed for New York.[6]

The Second Franklin Expedition

Kane wrote a narrative of his adventure and published the book named The U. S. Grinnell Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin. He delivered lectures to various scientific bodies and used the success of his book to encourage Grinnell, George Peabody and the U.S. Navy to support a second search expedition from Baffin Bay to the Polar Sea.

Elisha Kane’s determination may not have found Sir John Franklin or the Northwest Passage, but it did keep his crewmen alive.

Kane was put in charge and faced many problems from the beginning.

The second expedition started in New York on May 30, 1853, and the crew of the Advance suffered an extremely cold winter with temperature as low as -70°F. In 1854, the expedition sent four sled missions to explore Peabody Bay, now Kane Basin, and two died. Other expeditions took crew members in varied directions around their camp, but all failed. In late summer 1854, Hayes and other crew members attempted to reach Upernavik, against Kane’s orders, but returned on December 12 after having almost died.

Kane decided to abandon the Advance in May 1855 and the crew traveled 1,300 miles by foot and boat for 83-days to reach Upernavik. A Danish ship took them to Godhavn, Disco Island and, in early September, two U.S. ships picked them up and returned them to the U.S. Despite all the troubles, only three crew members died during the mission. He completed his account of the second mission, The Second Grinnell Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin, even with his growing health issues.[7]

Later Life and Death

When Lady Franklin insisted another expedition take place to find her husband, Elisha Kane felt obligated to participate. He began securing support in August 1856 and on October 11, he left for Liverpool. He arrived in poor health, but high spirits, with the prospect of two expeditions ahead. Kane collapsed on October 29 and rested in London.

Kane traveled to Cuba, in hopes the climate could help his ailments, leaving England on November 17. He suffered a stroke in route and two of his brothers and his mother met him in Havana. Elisha Kane suffered a second, more intense stroke on February 16, 1857, and died in Havana, Cuba.[8] The U.S. Navy named two ships, the US Kane and USNS Kane, in memory of Elisha Kane. [9]



 Johnson, R.E. (1985.) “KANE, ELISHA KENT.” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. 8. University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003.[2]

Harney, A. (2003.) Elisha Kent Kane Papers. American Philosophical Society.[3]


  1. Johnson, 1985
  2. Harney, 2003
  3. Johnson, 1985
  4. Johnson, 1985
  5. Harney, 2003
  6. Harney, 2003
  7. Johnson, 1985
  8. Harney, 2003
  9. U.S. Navy. Kane, Elisha Kent. Naval History and Heritage Command.[1]

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