Shortly before his graduation in 1881 one of his professors recommended him for the position of astronomer on a government expedition to the Artic known as the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition—it is often called the Greely Expedition for its leader Lt. Adolphus Greely).
The expedition was sponsored by the U.S. government to conduct scientific experiments and measurements in the Polar Regions. On June 9, 1881, 25 men set out from Washington, D.C to Newfoundland where they boarded a ship to Lady Franklin Bay, north of the Arctic Circle.
They remained at the location, dubbed Fort Conger, for two years conducting various experiments. There Israel took hundreds of astronomical, pendulum, and magnetic readings as well as meteorological observations each day. By all accounts things were fine during this period—the men had plenty of food; each was given a quart of rum on his birthday; and there was adequate shelter from the elements.
In 1882 the ship that was to re-supply the expedition failed to arrive, however, the crew had enough supplies to maintain itself for another year. Another year passed and the ship still hadn't arrived. With supplies running out and the situation becoming bleak, on August 9, 1983, Greely led the group by way of small boats towards Cape Sabine, where there was a cache of supplies and the hope that they would be rescued.
Israel's readings were instrumental in getting them to the cape.
When they finally arrived at Cape Sabine they discovered that the relief ship had sunk, and only some of the supplies had been delivered. The situation soon deteriorated to the point where First Sergeant and Commissary Sergeant David Brainerd wrote in his diary, "Our own condition is so wretched, so palpably miserable, that death would be welcomed rather than feared."
At one point the group was forced to execute a man, Private Henry, for stealing food after being repeatedly warned not to do so. Three men drew lots to determine who would execute him with the one rifle they had—each man vowed never to reveal who fired the rifle.
Eventually most of the men died from frostbite, exposure and starvation. Israel died three weeks before a U.S. Navy ship made its way through the ice and rescued the few survivors.
Only six of the 25 survived the expedition.
When Israel's body returned to Kalamazoo for burial in 1884 thousands turned out at the station and on that day all of the town's businesses closed.
One survivor of the expedition wrote of Israel's passing:
Everyone was his friend. He had no enemies. His frankness, his honesty, and his noble generosity of nature had won the hearts of all his companions. His unswerving integrity during these months of agony has been a shining example; and although his sacrifices were lost to a few, still the effect has produced good fruit. For lack of strength we could not bury him today.
See also: Emil Bessels