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Dr. John Rae (30 September 181322 July 1893) was a Scottishmarker doctor who explored Northern Canada, discovered the final part of the Northwest Passage and reported the fate of the Franklin Expedition.

Early life and career

Rae was born at the Hall of Clestrainmarker in the parish of Orphirmarker in the Orkney Islandsmarker. After studying medicine at Edinburghmarker he went to work for the Hudson's Bay Company as a doctor, accepting a post as surgeon at Moose Factorymarker, Ontariomarker, where he remained for ten years.

Whilst working for the company, treating both European and indigenous employees of the company, Rae became known for his prodigious stamina and skilled use of snow shoes. He learned to live off the land like the Inuit and working with the local craftsmen, designed his own snow shoes. This knowledge allowed him to travel great distances with little equipment and few followers, unlike many other explorers of the Victorian Age.

In 1844–45, wanting to learn how to survey, Rae walked 1,200 miles over two months in the winter forest, a feat that earned him the Inuit nickname Aglooka, "he who takes long strides." In 1846 Rae went on his first expedition and in 1848 joined Sir John Richardson in searching for the Northwest Passage.

Search for Franklin's expedition

By 1849 Rae was in charge of the Mackenzie Rivermarker district at Fort Simpsonmarker. He was soon called upon to head north again, this time in search of two missing ships from the Franklin Expedition. While exploring King William Islandmarker in 1853 Rae made contact with local Inuit, from whom he obtained much information about the fate of the lost naval expedition. His report to the British Admiralty carried shocking and unwelcome evidence that cannibalism had been a last resort for some of the survivors. When it was leaked to the Press, Franklin's widow Lady Jane Franklin was outraged and recruited many important supporters, among them Charles Dickens who wrote several pamphlets condemning Rae for daring to suggest British Naval sailors would have resorted to cannibalism.

Later career and death

In 1860 Rae worked on the telegraph line to America, visiting Icelandmarker and Greenlandmarker. In 1864 he made a further telegraph survey in the west of Canada. In 1884 at age 71 he was again working for the Hudson's Bay Company, this time as an explorer of the Red Rivermarker for a proposed telegraph line from the United States to Russia.

John Rae died in London on 22 July 1893. A week later his body arrived in Orkneymarker. He was buried in the kirkyard of St Magnus' Cathedralmarker, Kirkwallmarker. A memorial to him is inside the cathedral.


Hall of Clestrain, birthplace of John Rae
Rae Straitmarker (between King William Islandmarker and the Boothia Peninsulamarker), Rae Isthmus, Rae Rivermarker, Fort Rae and the village of Rae-Edzomarker (now Behchoko), Northwest Territoriesmarker were all named for him.

The outcome of Lady Franklin's efforts to glorify the dead of the Franklin expedition meant Rae was shunned somewhat by the British establishment. Although he found the last link in the much-sought-after Northwest Passage Rae was never awarded a Knighthood, nor was he remembered at the time of his death, dying quietly in London. In comparison fellow Scot and contemporary explorer David Livingstone was knighted and buried with full imperial honours in Westminster Abbeymarker.

However, historians have since studied Rae's expeditions and his roles in finding the Northwest Passage and learning the fate of Franklin's crews. Authors such as Ken McGoogan have noted Rae was willing to adopt and learn the ways of indigenous Arctic peoples, which made him stand out as the foremost specialist of his time in cold-climate survival and travel. Rae also respected Inuit customs, traditions and skills, which went against the beliefs of many 19th century Europeans that most native peoples were primitive and of little educational value.

In July 2004, Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael introduced into the UK Parliament a motion proposing, inter alia, that the House "regrets that Dr Rae was never awarded the public recognition that was his due". In March 2009 he introduced a further motion urging Parliament to formally state it "regrets that memorials to Sir John Franklin outside the Admiralty headquarters and inside Westminster Abbey still inaccurately describe Franklin as the first to discover the [North West] passage, and calls on the Ministry of Defence and the Abbey authorities to take the necessary steps to clarify the true position."

In popular culture

  • Canadian filmmaker John Walker's documentary Passage highlighted Rae's role in the controversy over cannibalism, as well as his discovery of the Rae Straitmarker.
  • In November, 2009, Rae was the subject of the BBC2 programme Ray Mears' Northern Wilderness (Episode 4).


  1. EDM1459 - Dr John Rae And The Restoration Of The Hall Of Clestrain
  2. Ray Mears' Northern Wilderness Retrieved 18 November 2009

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