Cold case heats up as remains identified, again
Naturalist Harry Goodsir’s bones indicate neither scurvy nor TB doomed the adventurers
It’s perhaps the coldest of Canadian cold cases: Whose skeleton was recovered from a High Arctic island in 1869 and entombed in a British memorial dedicated to the lost Franklin Expedition?
For more than 140 years, the remains found on Nunavut’s King William Island by an American adventurer have been identified as those of Lt. Henry Le Vesconte, one of the officers who died with Sir John Franklin and all 127 other crewmen aboard the exploration ships Terror and Erebus during their famously ill-fated voyage to Northern Canada in the 1840s.
Now, the first modern scientific study of the bones and teeth of the sailor who perished while helping Britain — and, in turn, Canada — establish its Arctic sovereignty has shown that the remains probably belong to another of Franklin’s officers: expedition naturalist and assistant surgeon Harry Goodsir.
Remarkably, the mystery was unlocked thanks to a 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.
The study has also shed fresh light on the theory that a disastrous illness, perhaps scurvy or tuberculosis, doomed Franklin and his men. “ No evidence of these diseases was found on the bones, and DNA tests proved negative for tuberculosis,” English Heritage, a British government advisory agency, stated in a summary of findings from the long-delayed autopsy.
Another prominent theory about the tragedy remains to be tested using the bones.
“ Work is still ongoing on samples from the remains,” English Heritage noted, “ to analyze for lead to see if lead poisoning from the expedition’s canned food or from their water supply was a factor.”
The bones were gathered originally from the southern tip of King William Island and shipped to Britain by eccentric American explorer Charles Francis Hall, one of many 19thcentury searchers who scoured Arctic Canada for signs of Franklin’s lost ships — a quest revived in recent years by Parks Canada archeologists.
The remains, one of only two sets of bones from the Franklin voyages ever repatriated to Britain, were examined by English doctors in the 1870s and determined to belong to Le Vesconte despite doubts expressed at the time by the officer’s family.
Placed beneath the ornate Franklin Expedition memorial at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich, England, the remains were briefly removed in 2009 while repairs were carried out on the monument.
Researchers led by English Heritage skeletal biologist Simon Mays were permitted to study the bones and teeth of the entombed individual, and their findings — published in the latest issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science — led to the tentative re-identification of the remains as those of H. D. S. ( Harry) Goodsir.
“ We do know from letter evidence that Le Vesconte’s sister was not convinced” about the initial identification of the remains, Mays told Postmedia News. “ It was nice to vindicate her after 140 years.”
Two key pieces of evidence pointed to Goodsir, May’s team concluded. The unusual shape of the skeleton’s facial bones suggested the individual would have had, in life, a distinctive “ groove” below his protruding lower lip — a feature made apparent in a facial reconstruction completed by the research team and which closely matched a daguerreotype photograph of Goodsir from the 1840s.
Furthermore, an isotope analysis of one of the subject’s teeth — the same technique used recently by Canadian scientists to identify the remains of a First World War soldier unearthed at a construction site in France — indicated that the man whose bones were found on King William Island grew up near Edinburgh, Scotland ( as Goodsir did) or elsewhere on the east coast of Britain.
That finding also ruled out Le Vesconte — who grew up in the southwest English county of Devon — as the source of the remains now at Greenwich.
Because the scientific results were not available when the bones were returned to their tomb in October 2009, it was Le Vesconte who was honoured in a special ceremony attended by Canada’s High Commissioner to Britain, James Wright, and Parks Canada archeologist Robert Grenier, who led a 2008 search near King William Island for the Terror and Erebus.
While Mays stated that the Goodsir identification “ is not 100 per cent certain,” genetic samples from the bones have been retained “ so attempts at a DNA match” can be made if a living relative comes forward in the future.
During his lifetime, Goodsir’s older brother John emerged as one of Britain’s leading figures in the anatomical sciences and the study of dentistry. His writings on the development and structure of human teeth are among the foundations of a discipline that — in the 21st century — includes such high-tech research as the identification of individuals’ geographic origins from the chemical traces trapped in their teeth.
Harry Goodsir himself contributed to scientific research in anatomy, publishing papers in the field and serving as a conservator at a medical museum in Edinburgh from 1843 until 1845. That was the year he made his fateful decision to join the Franklin Expedition, accepting an appointment as a science officer on HMS Erebus as its crew searched for the Northwest Passage and gathered knowledge about Canada’s cold, desolate — and sometimes deadly — polar frontier.