A Polar Explorer Died Heating Up His Own Feces

A Polar Explorer Died Heating Up His Own Feces


Jørgen Brønlund was a Greenland-born Inuit polar explorer, educator, and Catholic catechist who participated in two Danish expeditions to Greenland in the early 20th century. Famously, he was the last person to die on a 1907 mission in Greenland. Now, a mysterious black spot in the polar explorer’s diary has revealed clues to how he died. And you’d better brace yourself, for it was gruesome.

The Black Spot of Death for a Polar Explorer

The ill-fated three-man “Denmark Expedition” was led by Danish ethnologist Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen. The explorers set out to chart  Greenland's Northeastern territories between 1906 to 1908. Brønlund was the last of the team to perish in November 1907, and his was the only body ever recovered. Lying starving in a remote frozen cave, Brønlund recorded his final thoughts in a  diary, but on the last page there is a mysterious, heavy black smudge.

Brønlund’s famous farewell note. (Det Kongelige Bibliotek)

Brønlund’s famous farewell note. ( Det Kongelige Bibliotek )

It is known the team of three died while trying to return to base camp from Greenland's northern coast. Team leader, Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen, and Niels Peter Høeg Hagen, the expedition's  cartographer, died first, but Brønlund successfully made it to cave near the basecamp. The explorer’s diary was recovered in 1908 and is on display at the  Royal Library in Copenhagen . An article published in 1908 in the  Scottish Geographical Magazine  quoting the last page the polar explorer’s diary says: “I cannot go on, because of my  frozen feet  and the darkness.”

Greenland-born Inuit polar explorer, educator, and Catholic catechist, Jørgen Brønlund. (Public Domain)

Greenland-born Inuit polar explorer, educator, and Catholic catechist, Jørgen Brønlund. ( Public Domain )

A Last Ditch Attempt at Living

A new study published in the journal  Archaeometry presents an extensive analysis of the black spot, which the paper says was “surreptitiously removed by an unknown researcher for analysis in 1993 without prior permission.” Dr. Kaare Lund Rasmussen is a professor in the Department of Physics, Chemistry and Pharmacy at the  University of Southern Denmark , and the lead author of the new study, and he told  Live Science  that when experts at the National Museum's Natural Science Unit first studied the black spot they were unable to determine its chemical makeup.

However, using modern methods of analysis, like  X-ray fluorescence  (XRF), and inductively coupled  plasma mass spectrometry  (ICP-MS), the new study shows that the spot consists of “burnt rubber, oils and feces.” Yup, you read that right, feces. Brønlund, it appears, was so desperate to light a life-saving petroleum burner that he first gathered, then tried to burn, his own feces.

The 3x3 mm black spot from Brønlund's diary. (Kaare Lund Rasmussen/SDU)

The 3x3 mm black spot from Brønlund's diary. ( Kaare Lund Rasmussen/SDU )

The Science Bit

The researchers discovered traces of zinc, calcium, and titanium, in samples of calcite, rutile and zincite, respectively, that allowed the composition of the black spot to be interpreted. These three chemicals aren’t found naturally in north-eastern  Greenland environments  and Professor Rasmussen said these specific minerals were used “as fillers in rubber production, suggesting that the diary spot included burnt rubber that likely came from a charred gasket on a kerosene stove or burner that Brønlund was trying to light.”

Brønlund's petroleum burner was found in 1973. (Jørn Ladegaard)

Brønlund's petroleum burner was found in 1973. ( Jørn Ladegaard )

The presence of feces in the black spot suggests the polar explorer’s end was accompanied by a desperate and confused struggle. According to the paper, in his broken, dilapidated state, Brønlund “may have tried burning his own excrement to get the stove to light.” From our living rooms and offices this might read like a really extreme action, but in context, you’d probably do the same. Brønlund hadn’t just gone for a couple of days without a good meal, but the researchers say he “had  starved for weeks.” What´s more, he was “tired beyond his capacity, and freezing.”

Under such constant and increasing duress, and having failed every other way imaginable to light the stove, the scientists concluded that the presence of  feces in the once mysterious black spot “speaks to the dire circumstances and poor conditions during his last dismal days.”

Top Image: A dying polar explorer tried burning his own feces to survive. Source:  zlikovec / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie



Warwick Lewis's picture

It's hard to read under brown light.!


ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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