Sunday, March 20, 2011

Who's in that Grave?

To riff on an old American joke, it turns out that it may not be Grant in that tomb. According to a forensic facial reconstruction, the skeletal remains reburied with great ceremony in 2009 in Greenwich may not have been those of Henry Dundas Le Vesconte, but rather those of Harry Goodsir, surgeon-naturalist of the Franklin expedition. On one level, it matters not; any honors bestowed upon the remains by sonorous ceremony, with the blessings of the Bishop of Woolwich and the speech of the Canadian Chargé d'affaires would be no less deserved if performed over the bones of any of Franklin's officers or men as had they been made for Le Vesconte. Nevertheless, the identity of this curious skeleton -- brought back to England's shores by way of the eccentric explorer Charles Francis Hall -- remains a bone of contention.

There are questions, of course. How accurate is a facial reconstruction, when it comes to making a positive identification? The technique was originated in the 1890's, but was not widely known outside forensic circles until Wilton W. Krogman popularized it in the 1960's. A particularly well-publicized case was that of German forensic scientist R.P. Helmer's identification of the skull of Nazi "Angel of Death" Josef Mengele in 1985. Helmer looked at photographs of a cross-section of the skull and compared them with known photos of Mengele while alive; by "merging" these two images and looking at specific points and proportions, Helmer felt he could make an identification with a fairly high degree of certainty. Another technique, building up the muscles and skin tissue on a skull or a cast of a skull, came somewhat later; originally used to reconstruct the probable appearance of primitive humans, it was later extended to modern remains. This technique depends upon the reconstructor's knowing something of the age, race, and gender of the subject, and involves a certain degree of interpretation.

The photo distributed with the news of this fresh view of the remains brought back by Hall suggests a blend of both techniques: a facial reconstruction model photographed and then superimposed on a photograph of the candidate. There are questions: given that we only have photographs of perhaps half of Franklin's officers, and none of his men, there might be matches that could be missed; given the limits of this procedure, results would be far stronger if corroborated by other sorts of evidence.

Happily, having had the opportunity, with thanks to one of its co-authors, to see the actual study, "New light on the personal identification of a skeleton of a member of Sir John Franklin’s last expedition to the Arctic, 1845" (Journal of Archaeological Science) I can say that there is substantially more to this identification than facial reconstruction. The jury may still be out, but we have some remarkable additional clues: The skeleton is definitively male, and was of a man between 23 and 59 years of age; he was probably tall and slender, and an isotope analysis of his tooth enamel shows that this individual almost certainly did not grow up in Devon, as did Le Vesconte. Moreover, whatever the precise accuracy of the facial reconstruction, the proportions of the skull and jaw are inconsistent with those of Le Vesconte. Lastly, there is the gold tooth filling -- a very gracefully inserted bit of metal, hardly the "plug" described by its first witnesses, in a tooth showing signs of careful filing -- which suggests someone who had very advanced dental care, in nineteenth-century terms.

And as it happens, Goodsir answers excellently to all these features: he grew up in Scotland, and had never served on a naval vessel prior to his service with Franklin; his face shows the basic features present in the skull, and his eldest brother -- John Goodsir, a scientific pioneer renowned for his medical teachings -- had commenced his career with a careful study of dentistry, with an eye to reforming and refining a hitherto rather brutal practice imposed upon its poor sufferers by ill-trained barber-surgeons. Indeed, John Goodsir's portrait in the Dictionary of National Biography reveals a nose that looks almost the exact match of the facial reconstruction, a helpful additional clue given that the nose of the younger Goodsir, his face turned three-quarters from the camera's eye, is less easily measurable than it would be in a head-on shot.

But there is one remaining issue. If DNA was collected from these bones, then it should be possible to find a match in Goodsir's collateral descendants. As one of several successful brothers, it would seem likely that there would be many candidates, but research so far has not located any. A DNA test would make the identification definitive, or (possibly) rule it out completely, but this would depend on finding a suitable candidate -- preferably someone descended via the female line, where mitochondrial DNA would be passed on unaltered.

But does it matter? Not for the memorial, certainly, which would stand as proudly whichever Franklin officer it honored (and indeed, it honors all of them). But possibly, for the understanding of the last months of the Franklin expedition, it does. Was Goodsir sent along with an advance party of some kind? As a surgeon-naturalist, would the presence of his remains indicate that science was still taking the lead, or rather that circumstances were dire enough that he was sent to perform ordinary medical duties with some party of last survivors? More needs to be done, but if the identification of this body is in error, perhaps the remains supposed to be those of Lieutenant John Irving -- the only other skeleton brought back to England -- should be examined as well.


  1. VERY interesting stuff Russell. Agree with your comments. Hope someone can do a comparison of the DNA soon, now that the technique exists and is almost foolproof. Would save a lot of time and effort.

    I now wonder why one wouldn't start with that, unless it's all about not ruining the intrigue.

  2. Wow! This is exciting news! I hope family can be found so that DNA comparisons may be made.

    On the issue of testing the Schwatka-returned remains identified as John Irving: do we have Irving descendants alive to help with this should it ever be thought reasonable? I remember you wrote last year that there are known Franklin family descendants with us today, but at the time you weren't sure such was the case for Lt. Irving.

  3. How exciting! I actually have a Harry Goodsir facebook page (I'm not related, just took a liking to his history) and several people have contacted me claiming that they think they may be related to him.

  4. How neat.

    Have they ever done a reconstruction of the bodies on Beechy Island, so see how they looked like before they got sick and died?

  5. I'm trying to co-ordinate an intensive attempt to trace all Goodsir's present-day relatives to see if we can get a DNA sample which might, or might not, match that from the Greenwich skeleton.

    If anyone has any information which might help I'd be much obliged if they could contact me.

    Thanks and apologies for hijacking your blog, Russell,


  6. Thanks for the effort, William! I hope you have success!

  7. A couple days late, but the story appears on page 3 of today's "Ottawa Citizen" newspaper under the headline, "CSI Nunavut".

    Don't know how factual it is, but one thing the article mentions is that, "Remarkably, the mystery was unlocked thanks to reconstruction of the dead man's face and a chemical probe of his teeth - modern-day scientific techniques that evolved, in part, from the discoveries of a pioneering 19th-century anatomist named John Goodsir: Harry's own brother."

  8. Collateral descendants of Goodsir would be great, but I wonder if it might be even better to go in the other direction and see if it were possible to get a DNA sample from the remains of either of his parents (or his distinguished brother)? Since they were closer generationally than any living person would be, the proportion of shared DNA would be greater, and so a match theoretically easier to establish. There's also the benefit that their whereabouts might be easier to track down ...

    Having said all that of course, if it's possible to deduce Jefferson's liaison with Sally Hemmings (now more than two centuries ago) from currently living people, it should be do-able for Goodsir.

  9. Many thanks to all who have commented on this post. I will try to answer all the issues raised:

    1) Laura Ann: please forward any contacts you have to me, and I will send them along to the article's authors.

    2) Tammy: No, this has not been done, though in the bookBuried in Ice: A Time Quest Book, there are artist's renditions of Torrington and others which answer reasonably well.

    3) David: Good question as to Irving relations; his brother, who spoke at his funeral, was a Major General in the Army; relations ought to be traceable.

    4) Jonathan: Excellent point. John Goodsir, as fate would have it, is buried in the same cemetery as Irving, Edinburgh's Dean Cemetery -- I found a moving description of his funeral procession, led by two hundred of his pupils, and a description of his granite obelisk, with the simple inscription "John Goodsir, Anatomist" -- on its side was engraved, at the request of the Rev. J.T. Goodsir, a logarithmic spiral "because it interprets the form of every molluscan shell." It would be a solemn affair to dig under such a memorial, but one the Anatomist would, I feel confident, understand.

  10. Hi Russell, and warmest greetings from Ireland. I'm getting a little concerned: you haven't added to your blog since March 20th! That's not like you. Hope all's OK with you.
    Your friend, Joe O'Farrell

  11. Hello Joe.

    It's grand to hear from you, and all best to you and yours!

    And yes, it is indeed unusual for me to have no new Franklin or Arctic posts for so long -- I've gotten more than one inquiry as to my health!

    But it is good news, not bad, that has slowed me down a bit -- I am in the final stages (copyediting, page proofs, etc.) of a new book which, although not Polar in subject matter, promises to make quite a splash when it appears this November in the UK. I will post details as soon as all the t's are crossed and i's dotted! -- very shortly, I hope.

    By the by, you should know that your "guest blog" appearance here is the #2 most-viewed post in the history of this blog (the only higher one was my first post on the finding of McClure's ship). I should have you as my guest more often!

    all the very best!