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KING, RICHARD, doctor, Arctic explorer, ethnologist, and writer; b. probably in 1810 in London, Eng., son of Richard King; m. in 1857 to Elizabeth Lumley by whom he had at least one son; d. in London on 4 Feb. 1876.

In 1820 Richard King entered St Paul’s School in London; in 1824 he began a seven-year apprenticeship with an apothecary. The Society of Apothecaries granted him their licence in 1832. His medical degree is believed to have been granted by the University of St Andrews in Fife, Scotland; however, their records for that period are defective and the supposition cannot be proved. It was as a surgeon and naturalist that King set out in 1833 with Captain George Back’s Arctic land expedition in search of Captain John Ross*, then four years absent on a search for a northwest passage.

King, although second in command, was in large part responsible for the success of the expedition. The two men evidently worked well enough together in the field, even though Back created unnecessary difficulties in King’s task of collecting natural history specimens. On the outward journey to the northwest, King had charge of the main party and the heavy supplies, while Back hurried ahead in a light canoe to prepare for the exploration of the Great Fish River (Back River). After his return, Back set out as early as possible for England again leaving King in charge of the main party with instructions that were all but impossible to carry out.

Back, of course, wrote the official narrative of the expedition, to which King contributed botanical and meteorological appendices. In addition, King published his own account which is, in many respects, the better book. King showed a deeper understanding of the Indians and, although his share of the work had been far more arduous than Back’s, he did not exaggerate, as Back did, the hardships of the journey. He differed from Back on some material geographical points and he made it clear that he thought the expedition might have been better managed and might have accomplished much more – so much more that he had decided, “while yet tented on the shores of the Polar Sea, to form the project of returning to resume the search at the point where Captain Back had terminated his labours . . . .” For 22 years King attempted unsuccessfully to secure support for this project: principally because of Back’s persuasive and unfriendly influence in higher places than those to which King had access, he always failed.

King considered the completion of the survey of the northern coast of North America to be the great geographical problem of the time, one that would help to settle the practicability of a northwest passage. In 1836 he proposed to solve the problem of Boothia Isthmus, a feature placed by John Ross on his map of the area on the basis of Eskimo report only. If the isthmus existed, then King thought – rightly, as it turned out – that the land north of it, named North Somerset (now Somerset Island) by Ross, was a part of the northern coast, and that Boothia Peninsula, rather than Melville Peninsula, was the most northeastern point of the continent.

When the colonial secretary refused his proposal, King opened a public subscription for the £1,000 he needed. Response was favourable until the Admiralty decided to send Back in Terror to the northwest coast of Hudson Bay with orders to cross overland to the Gulf of Boothia and explore the unknown territory by boat. At the same time the Hudson’s Bay Company refused to support King but sent, instead, their own men, Peter Warren Dease* and Thomas Simpson, to explore the other two unknown sections of the northern coast, one in Alaska, the other between Coronation Gulf and the Back River. King believed that his own initiative had stimulated both expeditions.

Back’s expedition was a failure and he turned home after a winter beset in Hudson Bay. Dease and Simpson, using small parties of the kind King had advocated and with some of the same men he had wished to take, were entirely successful.

In 1842 King again submitted his proposal, still insisting on the importance of the coast between the Back River and Melville Peninsula. With a small expedition in canoes, he planned to work northward from Back River along the east coast of Chantrey Inlet. If Boothia proved to be an island, they would soon reach Fury and Hecla Strait and, by passing through it, quickly complete the northern configuration of the continent. But if the isthmus did exist, he planned to follow the land to its northern limit, to see how it connected with land to the eastward, and, if he found it separated by a sufficient width, to solve at last “the grand problem of a practicable passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific . . . .” Once again, his proposal was refused.

When, in 1845, King first heard of the expedition planned by Sir John Franklin*, he strongly urged that a land party be sent in support of it. And when, in 1847, no word had been received from Franklin, King was one of the first to raise alarm for the expedition’s safety. Although his understanding of Franklin’s orders was at that time imperfect (they had not yet been made public), he declared without hesitation that Franklin’s expedition would be found on “the Western land of North Somerset.” He reached the right conclusion, according to the historian R. J. Cyriax, from extremely questionable premises. As better information became available, he argued the same points more firmly, insisting with his own peculiar vehemence that the only efficient means of reaching the lost expedition was by way of Back River. In 1847 he offered to lead an expedition there and to guide Franklin’s men to depots of food that he wanted laid down in 1848. He was refused. In 1848 Admiralty sent out three relief expeditions, and many others followed in succeeding years, until nearly the whole Arctic – except where King said the expedition was to be found – had been combed. Among all the Arctic experts, only Sir Edward Belcher, Frederick William Beechey*, and Lady Franklin (Jane Griffin) supported King’s views in any way. In 1850 Lady Franklin sent William Kennedy* in her ship Prince Albert to search near the mouth of the Back River, but he did not fully carry out his orders and the object of his voyage remained unattained. Finally, in 1854, John Rae* unexpectedly learned from Eskimos in Pelly Bay of the death of a large number of white men not far to the west, near the mouth of the Back River.

All this time, King had persistently and noisily urged, as a matter of logic as well as of life and death, the necessity of a search exactly where the tragedy took place. Although the authorities rejected his opinions and proposals, the journals of the day took them up with enthusiastic sympathy. His appeal to the public – a thoroughly ungentlemanly thing to do – increased the animosity felt toward him by officers of the Admiralty, the Royal Geographical Society, and the HBC. In 1855 King reviewed his unwavering position in a book, The Franklin expedition from first to last, and, with a sarcastic wit that was frequently unpleasant, he spared none of his opponents. In 1856 he offered for the fifth time to descend the Back River, this time to search for Franklin’s records, and, later in the year, he renewed the offer in a joint plan with Bedford Pim*. It was, however, only in 1859 that Sir Francis Leopold McClintock*, sent by Lady Franklin at her own expense on a final search, examined the right place, and it was he who brought home the single record found, together with other evidences of the expedition’s final distress. If any of King’s many offers had been taken up, it is possible that more records might have been found. However, even if the Admiralty had acted on his first proposal in 1847, it is doubtful whether any of Franklin’s men could have been saved. It has even been suggested that it may have been, in part, King’s very insistence that discouraged the authorities from looking where he said to search.

The nearest to official acknowledgement that King had for his efforts and for the correctness of his views is an obscure reference in the revised third edition of M’Clintock’s The fate of Sir John Franklin: the voyage of the “Fox” . . . (1869; first ed., 1859). Sir Roderick Murchison, president of the Royal Geographical Society, observed in a footnote to his preface, “Amidst the various recent publications, it is but rendering justice to Dr. King . . . to state that he suggested and always maintained the necessity of a search for the missing navigators at or near the mouth of the Back River.”

Although King is chiefly remembered for his share in Back’s land expedition, 1833–35, and for his polemical role in the Franklin search, he led an active and useful life in medicine and learned pursuits. In 1842 he issued a prospectus that resulted in the formation of the Ethnological Society of London, of which he was the first secretary. In 1871 the society amalgamated with the Anthropological Society to form what is today the Royal Anthropological Society of Great Britain and Ireland; King remained on the council. He wrote many ethnological and medical papers of considerable value. His two small books on cholera and on the cause of death in still-born infants were important in their time, and he received a number of medical appointments and honours.

Alan Cooke

[George Back, Narrative of the Arctic land expedition to the mouth of the Great Fish River, and along the shores of the Arctic Ocean, in the years 1833, 1834, and 1835 (London, 1836). Richard King, Narrative of a journey to the shores of the Arctic Ocean, in 1833, 1834, and 1835, under the command of Capt. Back (2v., London, 1836); The Franklin expedition from first to last (London, 1855); “On the industrial arts of the Esquimaux,” Ethnological Society of London, Journal, I (1848), 277–300; “On the intellectual character of the Esquimaux,” Ethnological Society of London, Journal, I (1848),127–52; “On the unexplored coast of North America,” London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, 3rd ser., XX (1842), 488–94. F. L. M’Clintock, Fate of Sir John Franklin: the voyage of the “Fox” in the Arctic seas . . . (1st ed., London, 1859; 3rd ed., revised and enlarged, London, 1869), vii-xviii.

DNB: the biography of Richard King contains many inaccuracies including a confusion with another man of the same name who served as assistant-surgeon on Resolute during Horatio Thomas Austin*’s 1850–51 expedition, and who won the polar medal. R. J. Cyriax, Sir John Franklin’s last Arctic expedition . . . a chapter in the history of the Royal Navy (London, 1939). F. J. Woodward, Portrait of Jane: a life of Lady Franklin (London, 1951). R. J. Cyriax, “Sir James Clark Ross and the Franklin expedition,” Polar Record (Cambridge, Eng.), III (1942), 528–40. This biography is also based on information supplied to the author by Mr Hugh Wallace from his personal correspondence.  a.c.]

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Cite This Article

Alan Cooke, “KING, RICHARD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 26, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/king_richard_10E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/king_richard_10E.html
Author of Article:   Alan Cooke
Title of Article:   KING, RICHARD
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1972
Year of revision:   1972
Access Date:   February 26, 2024