|Reproduced with permission|
When the coffin was opened, it was full of touching surprises. A pasteboard cross with dried flowers was among them, as was a paper packet of teeth and note from George Henry Richards. The bones themselves were wrapped in an enormous paper chart of Papua New Guinea, though an Arctic chart was also present. The scientific effort to examine it all had to be accomplished in the relatively brief interval between taking apart the monument (then located in a stairwell behind the sacristy, out of public view) and its re-installation in the vestibule.
The team, led by Dr. Simon Mays and including my friend the late William Battersby, had their work cut out for them ---it was almost a sort of archaeological triage. A cast of the skull was made, with an eye to reconstructing the face, and the teeth were brought to the laboratory for analysis. Teeth, as it turns out, can be remarkably useful in tracing the life of their possessor; as their inner layers are laid down in youth, so is the signature of local minerals in the air and water that is remarkable in its precision. Even Ötzi, the "Ice Man," who lived 5,000 years ago, has been traced to his home town of Feldthurns in northern Italy by these means. Using similar measures -- isotopes of strontium and calcium -- the teeth of our Arctic skeleton were matched to the eastern coasts of Scotland. This, then, was certainly not the skeleton of Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte, who spent his childhood in Devon within sniffing range of its chalky cliffs -- it was that of someone who'd grown up amidst the granite and gravel of Scotland.
Just twelve of Franklin's crew were from parts of Scotland; among the officers, we have the ice-master James Reid (Aberdeen), assistant surgeons Alexander Macdonald (Laurencekirk) and Harry Goodsir (Anstruther), who were fellow medical students in Edinburgh, and James S. Peddie, another Edinburgh graduate, from West Lothian. That gives roughly us sixteen potential candidates based on the tooth isotopes alone.
It would seem to be a difficult field to narrow, but one tooth had a second tale to tell: a gold filling. It's not so much the costliness (which led earlier examiners to take it as proof the man was an officer) but the scarcity of such fillings that turned out to be the key. Gold fillings were rather uncommon at the time; the practice, in fact, had been introduced relatively recently by the Scottish dental surgeon Robert Nasmyth. And, as it happens, there's a direct connection between Nasmyth and Goodsir, as Goodsir's father was one of the dentist's closest friends, and Harry's brother John actually worked as Nasmyth's assistant! It's quite good circumstantial evidence that this skeleton might more likely be Goodsir's.
With thanks to Dr. Simon Mays, Mike Tracy, Regina Koellner, and Peter Carney for their assistance in preparing this post.