Elisha Rent Kane, an American arctic explorer, born in Philadelphia, Feb. 3, 1820, died in Havana, Feb. 16, 1857. He was the son of Judge John K. Kane of Philadelphia. In 1836 he entered the Virginia university, and was rapidly qualifying himself for the profession of a civil engineer, when in 1838 he left the institution owing to a disease of the heart, from which he never fully recovered. He began in 1839 the study of medicine in Philadelphia, and on Oct. 19, 1840, he was elected, while still an undergraduate and not of age, resident physician in the Pennsylvania hospital. His health still continuing bad, his father obtained for him the post of surgeon in the navy, and he sailed in the frigate Brandywine with Commodore Parker, in May, 1843, as physician to the embassy to China. The American legation being delayed for several months at Bombay, Dr. Kane visited the cave temples of Ellora and Carlee, and travelled in Ceylon. While the expedition remained for nearly seven months at Macao, Dr. Kane crossed the China sea to Luzon, where he made a more complete examination of the Philippines than any foreigner had at that time effected.
He traversed Luzon from Manila to the Pacific coast, and descended the crater of the great volcano of Tael. " Only one European had attempted this before, and he without success." He afterward displayed great courage and remarkable activity in visiting Chinese cities and their environs. He remained after the legation had left China, and was engaged for six months in successful practice as a physician at Whampoa, but at the close of 1844 he resolved on account of his health to return home. Before doing so he visited Borneo, Sumatra, and Ceylon, and spent several months in travelling through India, including the Himalaya mountains. He afterward passed through Persia and Syria, traversed Egypt as far south as Sennaar, and became acquainted with Lepsius. He lost his baggage and papers, was wounded in fighting with Bedouin robbers, and returned to Alexandria, where he had an attack of the plague. Scarcely recovered, he set out for Greece, which he traversed on foot, and then passed from Patras to Trieste. He now travelled through Germany and Switzerland, making in the latter country careful studies of the glaciers, which he afterward found of service in illustrating his theories of the arctic regions. From Switzerland he went to Italy, France, and England, and from England returned home.
On May 25, 1846, he sailed in the frigate United States for the coast of Africa. Having in Brazil in 1843 obtained letters of introduction from the famous slave dealer Da Souza to his agents in Africa, Dr. Kane was enabled to inspect the factories, and joining a caravan visited Dahomey, where he became acquainted with the sovereign. But in returning to the coast he was attacked by the fever of that region, and finally reached Philadelphia, April 6,1847, much weakened in health. Having obtained a transfer from the naval to the military staff, he set out on Nov. 6 for Mexico. Being desirous of reaching the American army in time to take part in the war, he went from Perote with a guerilla spy company. On the way he was concerned in a desperate encounter with a Mexican party, performing feats of heroism in defence of prisoners against his own men after the victory. Generals Gao-na and Torrejon were among the persons thus saved. Kane received a lance wound and had his horse killed under him. He was most kindly tended by the family of Gaona, and having been carried to Mexico on a hospital ambulance was there invalided and returned home.
In January, 1849, he sailed in a store ship to Rio Janeiro, Lisbon, and the Mediterranean, returning in October. In May, 1850, he sailed from New York as surgeon and naturalist to the expedition under Lieut. De Haven, fitted out at the cost of Mr. Henry Grinnell, to search for Sir John Franklin. (See Arctic Discovery, vol. i., p. 674.) Of this expedition he published an account, "Narrative of the Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin " (New York, 1854). The disappointment which had attended the return of the unsuccessful English and American expeditions had only increased the public desire to ascertain the fate of Franklin. More vigorous efforts were to be made, and Dr. Kane was desirous of taking part in them. When so ill as to be incapable of writing a long letter, he wrote to Mr. Grinnell, offering his services. Finally, through the liberality of Mr. Grinnell and Mr. George Peabody, $10,000 and a brig (the Advance) were secured. Kane contributed his own pay (about $3,000) and the proceeds of the lectures which he delivered in 1852-'3. The Advance sailed from New York under Dr.
Kane's command, May 30, 1853, and the surviving officers and crew reached home again in October, 1855, having been forced to abandon the brig in the ice, and to travel with sledges and boats for 84 days to the Danish settlements on the coast of Greenland, where they met the expedition sent out for their relief under Capt. Hartstene. No traces of Sir John Franklin's party had been found. The most striking result of the voyage was the discovery of what was supposed to be an open polar sea, the existence of which Dr. Kane had maintained in a paper read before the American geographical society, Oct. 14, 1852. The story of the sufferings and discoveries of this heroic band of explorers was told by Kane in his "Second Grinnell Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin" (2 vols. 8vo, Philadelphia, 1856). Gold medals were awarded to him by congress, by the legislature of New York, and by the royal geographical society of London. He also received the queen's medal given to arctic explorers between the years 1818 and 1856, and a testimonial from the British residents of New York city. Dr. Kane's health now gave way again, and soon after completing his narrative he sailed for England. In London he grew rapidly worse.
Finding himself sinking, he sailed on Feb. 17 for St. Thomas, whence he went to Havana, suffering during the voyage a paralytic stroke. On Dec. 25 he reached Havana, where he died as he was about to be removed to the United States. - See "Life of Dr. E. K. Kane," by William Elder, M. D. (Philadelphia, 1857).