Thursday, December 17, 2020

The Goodsir Brooch

It may be one of the most extraordinary relics of the Franklin expedition that's never before been seen: a brooch, containing in its inmost oval a weave of human hair, including that of Henry Duncan Spens Goodsir.

But Harry's hair is not alone; ten other individuals from the Goodsir and Taylor families are represented, the eldest being the Reverend Joseph Taylor (1742-1815), and including both of Harry's parents, his brother Archie and his sister Agnes (both of whom died young, Archie at 23 and Agnes at the tender age of one. The choice of the Goodsir siblings suggests to me that the original impulse of the brooch's being made was memorial, which the black border seems to also indicate. The most likely occasion would seem to be on or after the death of the Reverend Anstruther Taylor in 1863; his name is engraved on the back. Presumably, some locks of hair had been preserved by the families from the others; such brooches were not uncommon (see this example from the Victoria & Albert Museum), though the large number of individuals represented -- confirmed in a handwritten list kept with the brooch -- is certainly unusual.

The brooch was kept in the family, passing from Jane Ross Goodsir (who probably commissioned it) to her cousin Dr. Harry Goodsir Mackid (1858-1916) in Canada (he was the son of Harry's aunt Jean Forbes (Taylor) Mackid). From him, it passed through the generations, ending up in the care of his great-grandson Court Mackid. When Michael Tracy tracked him  down, Court shared images and information about it, and both realized its enormous historical significance. One thought, of course, was to have it tested for DNA, but the difficulty of analyzing rootless hairs -- though one technique now seems capable of managing this -- combined with that of isolating one individual's sequence from among 11 -- made such a prospect daunting. Neither Court nor Michael wished to damage the brooch or its contents, and the only available method of DNA analysis would have destroyed the hair used in it.

So the two cousins decided upon a different course -- they would jointly donate it to the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh; the Museum was pleased to accept it, and -- once these current days of pandemic-reduced services are past -- there it will be preserved, in the very halls where Harry once served as conservator.