Amelia Earhart’s Re­mains May Fi­nally Have Been Con­firmed

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The re­mains of ground­break­ing and coura­geous avi­a­tor Amelia Earhart may fi­nally have been con­firmed, thanks to a re­cent sci­en­tific study.

Amelia Mary Earhart was born on July 24, 1897. As a girl, she was fas­ci­nated by the op­por­tu­ni­ties for women in ar­eas mostly dom­i­nated by men. She had a scrap­book with news­pa­per ar­ti­cles about such women, cel­e­brat­ing the ac­com­plish­ments of early women film di­rec­tors and pro­duc­ers and lead­ers in ad­ver­tis­ing, man­age­ment and me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing.

That ex­po­sure may have en­cour­aged her to seek out do­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent from any of her peers. After grad­u­at­ing from Hyde Park High School in 1915, she went on to at­tend Ogontz, a girls fin­ish­ing school near Philadel­phia. She did not fin­ish but in­stead quit to work dur­ing World War I as a nurse’s aide in Canada at a mil­i­tary hos­pi­tal. She moved on from there to go to col­lege and then be­came a so­cial worker at Deni­son House, a Bos­ton-area set­tle­ment house.

Her in­ter­est in fly­ing came on when she had the op­por­tu­nity to at­tend a stunt-fly­ing ex­hi­bi­tion while in her late teens. She and a friend were watch­ing it when a pi­lot swooped down close above them. She watched the plane with a mix of fear and ex­cite­ment. Com­ment­ing about the event later, she said, “I did not un­der­stand it at the time, but I be­lieve that lit­tle red air­plane said some­thing to me as it swished by.” Not long after, on De­cem­ber 28, 1920, a pi­lot named Frank Hawks gave Earhart her first ride on a plane. That ride was the fi­nal push that caused her to change the di­rec­tion of her life. “By the time I had got­ten two or three hun­dred feet off the ground, I knew I had to fly.”

Less than a week later – on Jan­uary 3, 1921 – Earhart took her first fly­ing les­son. She loved it so much that in only six months she saved enough money to pur­chase her own plane. It was a used two-seater Kin­ner Airster bi­plane painted yel­low. That plane, which Earhart called “The Ca­nary,” car­ried her into the air to set her first record as a woman pi­lot by mak­ing it to 14,000 feet above the ground.

She went on to achieve many other firsts as a woman pi­lot. One of the big­gest of those was when she be­came the first woman to fly across the At­lantic Ocean.

That hap­pened when the fa­mous book pub­lisher and pub­li­cist Ge­orge P. Put­nam, along with other project back­ers, called her in 1928 to in­vite her to be the first woman to make it across the At­lantic. It was a ma­jor head­line-grab­ber be­cause three pi­lots had died ear­lier at­tempt­ing ex­actly what Earhart was to do. Even­tu­ally, on June 17, 1928, she and pi­lot Bill Stulz and co-pi­lot Louis E. Gor­don started out on the mis­sion. They flew out of Trepassey Har­bor, New­found­land, in a Fokker F.VII and landed in Wales at Burry Port about 21 hours later. The cel­e­bra­tions were big on their ar­rival there and even big­ger on ar­rival in the United States later. There, Earhart was given a tick­er­tape pa­rade in New York, fol­lowed by a re­cep­tion at the White House with Pres­i­dent Calvin Coolidge.

Earhart con­tin­ued her fly­ing pur­suits, ac­com­plish­ing other firsts and set­ting other records. Among them were

first woman to fly an Au­t­o­gyro to 18,415 feet

first per­son to fly solo from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Oak­land, California, on Jan­uary 11, 1935

first per­son to fly solo from Mex­ico City to Ne­wark, New Jersey

After set­ting those records, Earhart made a plan to be­come the first woman to fly around the world. After one false start in March, her jour­ney fi­nally be­gan on June 1, 1937. She and Fred Noo­nan, her nav­i­ga­tor, took off on that day for what was to be a 29,000-mile jour­ney.

By June 29, the two had trav­eled ap­prox­i­mately 22,000 of those to­tal miles along the way, land­ing in Lae, Pa­pua New Guinea.

Their next stop was to be How­land Is­land, 2,556 miles from Lae and lo­cated in the mid-pa­cific. It was a long stretch to reach for their plane, so Earhart and Noo­nan took ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble out of the plane to re­duce its weight and ex­tend its fly­ing range by an ex­tra 274 miles. The is­land they were headed for was also tiny, only a half a mile wide and 1.5 miles long, so it would be dif­fi­cult to find even with ex­cel­lent nav­i­ga­tion. To help them, the U.S. Coast Guard put its ra­dio con­tact ves­sel Itasca just off the shore of the is­land. Two other ships owned by the United States were also put in po­si­tion along the flight route with ev­ery light lit up, to act as ocean mark­ers.

On July 2, the flight be­gan. Though the weather fore­casts had ini­tially been good for the flight, Earhart and Noo­nan took off into dark skies with oc­ca­sional rain. When morn­ing ar­rived, Earhart ra­dioed Itasca to re­port that there was cloudy weather. Later ra­dio com­mu­ni­ca­tions be­came faint, so Earhart asked Itasca to track her. At 7:42 a.m., she ra­dioed Itasca to say, “We must be on you, but we can­not see you. Fuel is run­ning low. Been un­able to reach you by ra­dio. We are fly­ing at 1,000 feet.” Itasca re­sponded but re­ceived no direct an­swer to any of its calls. At 8:45 a.m., Earhart called Itasca with the mes­sage “We are run­ning north and south.” That was her last mes­sage.

Many searched for Earhart, but she was never found alive. And up un­til now, there has not been enough proof to in­di­cate where she likely ended up. That proof may have fi­nally come through, how­ever, after an ex­ten­sive study by Richard Jantz of the Uni­ver­sity of Ten­nessee’s Knoxville Cam­pus.

The analysis started with a new look at the mea­sure­ments of bones gath­ered from the is­land of Niku­maroro in the South Pa­cific.

Those bones were gath­ered when a search party in 1940 dis­cov­ered them along with other ma­te­ri­als sug­gest­ing this might be Earhart’s fi­nal rest­ing place. Those other things in­cluded a woman’s shoe, an empty sex­tant box and a Béné­dic­tine bot­tle. The bot­tle was of the same kind Earhart car­ried, and the sex­tant box was for a Bran­dis Navy Sur­vey­ing Sex­tant, the kind that her co-pi­lot had used. The bones in­cluded a humerus, a ra­dius, a tibia, a fibula and both femora.

The bones have long since dis­ap­peared, but those other items have lasted.

At the time the bones were orig­i­nally dis­cov­ered, it

was thought that they might have been from an­other dis­as­ter in the area. That was the wreck of the Nor­wich City ves­sel along the western reef of the is­land. That ves­sel had 11 men on board and no women, and most as­sumed that all had been killed ei­ther in the wreck it­self or soon after. That wreck was more than four miles from where the re­mains lay along­side the woman’s shoe, sex­tant box and bot­tle.

The new study be­gan when Jantz, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of an­thro­pol­ogy and direc­tor emer­i­tus of UT’S Foren­sic An­thro­pol­ogy Cen­ter, took a new look at the re­mains.

To do so, he looked at a set of seven bone mea­sure­ments orig­i­nally taken by physi­cian D. W. Hood­less, prin­ci­pal of the Cen­tral Med­i­cal School in Fiji at the time. Hood­less had stud­ied them and de­cided they were from a “mid­dle-aged stocky male about 5′5.5” in height.” a later re­view of the same mea­sure­ments in 1998 sug­gested that Hood­less might have been wrong in his as­sess­ment. In that re­view, the con­clu­sion sug­gested in­stead that this was a woman of Euro­pean an­ces­try who was be­tween 5’6” and 5’8” tall. All of that, in­clud­ing Earhart’s Ger­man an­ces­try, was con­sis­tent with the re­mains pos­si­bly be­ing hers.

Jantz’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion took the mea­sure­ments Hood­less had made and ap­plied a num­ber of new tech­nolo­gies and meth­ods to an­a­lyze them. Those in­cluded Fordisc, a com­puter pro­gram used to es­ti­mate ev­ery­thing from sex, an­ces­try and stature based on skele­tal mea­sure­ments. The pro­gram hap­pens to be used by most board-cer­ti­fied foren­sic an­thro­pol­o­gists in the world. It was also co-cre­ated by Jantz.

Us­ing Fordisc and other col­lat­eral in­for­ma­tion, Jantz first con­cluded that Hood­less had made a mis­take when he iden­ti­fied the re­mains as be­ing those of a man. The data was clear that the bones came from a woman. That also backed up the con­clu­sions of the 1998 study.

Next, Jantz be­gan to an­a­lyze the like­li­hood that the bones might have been Earhart’s. To do this, he used ra­dius and humerus (bone) lengths for her us­ing photographs of her next to a known-sized ob­ject. He cal­cu­lated Earhart’s tibia length based on the mea­sure­ments of her cloth­ing at the Ge­orge Palmer Put­nam Col­lec­tion of Amelia Earhart Pa­pers at Pur­due Uni­ver­sity. Those mea­sure­ments were gath­ered by a seamstress from the time. They in­cluded Earhart’s waist cir­cum­fer­ence and in­seam length.

After this analysis, Jantz con­cluded that the bone mea­sure­ments were closer to those of Earhart than to 99% of oth­ers he had in a large ref­er­ence sam­ple.

In his re­cent pa­per de­scrib­ing his analysis, Jantz said that Earhart “was known to have been in the area of Niku­maroro Is­land, where she went miss­ing, and hu­man re­mains were dis­cov­ered [there] that are en­tirely con­sis­tent with her and in­con­sis­tent with most other peo­ple.” That may not fully re­solve ev­ery­thing for all, but it is the most thor­ough such analysis made to date.

Jantz’s pa­per, “Amelia Earhart and the Niku­maroro Bones: A 1941 Analysis Ver­sus Mod­ern Quan­ti­ta­tive Tech­niques,” was pub­lished in the jour­nal Foren­sic An­thro­pol­ogy, Vol. 1, No. 2.

Amelia and Fred Noo­nan in Aus­tralia pre­par­ing for the next leg of their jour­ney.

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