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Greewich "Henry Le Vesconte". material from Franklins NW Passage expedition, 1845. Casket.
Published on Wednesday 23 March 2011 06:20
DESCENDANTS of a doomed explorer may be able, finally, to solve a 166-year-old mystery, reports Maggie Millar.
In the bowels of the old Royal Naval College in London, scientists have unearthed the remains of an officer on the ill-fated Franklin expedition to the Arctic in 1845.
All 129 men perished on the voyage – but only one complete skeleton survives.
And, contrary to widely accepted belief, new scientific analysis strongly suggests it may be that of surgeon Harry D. S. Goodsir – a famous naturalist from Anstruther.
A question mark will always remain, however, unless the team can test the DNA of a direct relative.
Skeletal biologist Dr Simon Mays, who led the English Heritage research project, said: “He had no recorded offspring, so to help establish whether it is H. D. S. Goodsir, using DNA evidence, we would need a descendant on a direct unbroken female line from H. D. S. Goodsir’s sister or on a direct unbroken male line from one of his brothers for us to compare with tissue samples we have from the burial,” he said.
“The bones are now reinterred at Greenwich, but we retained a tooth for potential DNA work. So if any Goodsirs have researched their family history and are related in this way, I would be interested to know.”
In May 1845, an expedition of two ships, commanded by Sir John Franklin, and sponsored by the Royal Navy, set out from England to try and discover the Northwest Passage trade route to Asia.
On board was assistant surgeon Harry Goodsir who, although only in his 20s, had already achieved considerable career success.
As a teenager, he dissected a whale under the supervision of Robert Knox, the infamous surgeon who accepted corpses from bodysnatchers Burke and Hare.
In 1843, at only 20 years of age, Goodsir took over Knox’s post as curator of the Museum of Comparative Anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh.
Moreover, as a collector of natural history specimens, he drew the attention of none other than Charles Darwin.
Fatefully, his inclination to study this emerging field prompted him to resign his Edinburgh post and join the Franklin voyage.
The ships – Erebus and Terror – struggled to navigate the treacherous waters of Arctic Canada and became trapped in ice near King William Island.
A note found on the island years later confirmed the ships had been trapped for a year and a half.
Cut marks on bodies indicated the men may have resorted to cannabalism in a desperate bid to survive.
Dr Mays said: ”The disappearance of Franklin’s heroic crew became a cause celebre in Victorian England, and the reasons for its loss continue to be debated.
“Our study offers some important clues to take the debate further. For example, some have suggested that scurvy or tuberculosis may have been causes of debilitation and death on the expedition, but no evidence of these diseases was found on the bones, and DNA tests proved negative for tuberculosis.”
The expedition’s disappearance prompted huge rescue efforts that helped map much of the vast and remote polar archipelago of the Canadian Arctic, but it took until 1869 before the site of the Franklin tragedy was located.
Fully clothed remains thought to belong to lieutenant Henry LeVesconte were discovered in a shallow grave and sent back to Britain to be symbolically buried under the Franklin Memorial in Greenwich.
And there he lay until renovations in 2009 meant scientists were able to re-evaluate his identity using modern scientific techniques.
Surprisingly, analysis of stable isotopes from the teeth of the skeleton show he spent his childhood in north east England or eastern Scotland – not in LeVesconte’s Devon.
Furthermore, 14 of the 24 officers on the expedition had their portraits taken by the newly devised daguerreotype photographic process prior to embarkation and, when a forensic facial reconstruction was undertaken using the skull of the skeleton, the end result seemed to match quite closely the appearance of Harry Goodsir.
“The facial resemblance to Harry Goodsir is striking, and the isotope evidence is consistent with it being him, but the identification is not 100 per cent certain because some officers on the voyage were not photographed,” said Dr Mays.
“However, tissue samples from the remains were retained so attempts at a DNA match with a living direct descendant of Goodsir can be made should anyone come forward.”
To contact Dr Mays email: Simon.Mays@english-heritage.org.uk