A preliminary report on the Palaeo-DNA Project and the unidentified Titanic victims in the Halifax, Nova Scotia, cemeteries
A Preliminary Report on the Palaeo-DNA Project and the Unidentified TITANIC
Victims in the Halifax, Nova Scotia, Cemeteries
Revised abstract of a May 4, 2002 talk presented at the 2002 Convention Titanic International Society,
May 3-5, 2002 Fairmont Chateau Laurier Hotel Ottawa, Ontario
The origin of this project came about in 1996 when a Canadian family from the Province of Ontario contacted the former City of Halifax through their clergyman. The clergyman provided family data and sought permission to inscribe the name of Catherine Jane Wallis, the family grandmother, on the gravestone of Body No. 281 in the TITANIC plot at Fairview Lawn Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Stephen King of the City's Parks and Grounds Department was cognizant that on September 23, 1991 the process of inscribing six names on the gravestones of unidentified victims in the cemetery was done in great haste with no formal City vetting or approval process in place. No formal report on the six identifications was prepared for the city’s cemetery files in 1991, and five years later Mr. King decided that the Ontario family’s request should be formally reviewed. One name was inscribed in 1991 with a typographic error, and the evidence re the apparent identification of Frank Couch as Body No. 253 is now somewhat uncertain.
The Ontario family's case was referred to a three-person committee chaired by the senior author, with Garry Shutlak of the Public Archives of Nova Scotia and Ross MacKay of the Nova Scotia Power Corporation as the other members. In the end, the family's proposed inscription could not be supported, although their evidence was not without real merit. In the late summer of 1998 Dr. Ryan Parr, then the Co-director of the Paleo-DNA Laboratory at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, contacted the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax to offer the services of his lab to possibly assist in identifying unidentified TITANIC victims. He was referred to Alan Ruffman, and through him to the Ontario family's clergyman, where the possibility of using palaeo-DNA techniques, that the Lakehead laboratory was well-experienced in, were discussed. In 1999 five members of the Ontario family decided to make a formal request to the Medical Officer of Health of the Capital District Health Authority, Nova Scotia Department of Health, the office which vets and rules on all such requests in Nova Scotia. The formal request however was not made until all proposed partial exhumations could be done at the same time to minimize the disruption in the Fairview Lawn Cemetery.
Over the next year, three members of a family of the relatives of Charles Joseph Shorney in England decided to make a similar request re Body No. 240, and two branches of the Pålsson family in Sweden made a similar decision re Body No. 4, "An Unknown [male] Child". The proposed project was screened by the Lakehead University Research Ethics Board to verify that it conformed to the 1998 "Tri-Council Statement for Research Involving Humans" and the 1999 "Ethics Procedures and Guidelines for Research Involving Humans". All three partial exhumations were approved by Dr. Robert Strang, MD, MHSc, FRCPC, the Medical Officer of Health in early and these occurred on May 17 and 18, 2001 after close and careful consultation with the staff of the Halifax Regional Municipality. The site was cordoned off, with press and cameras kept at a discrete distance. A tent was used to further shield the operations. All media interviews were scheduled at the end of the day at the lower Chisholm Avenue entrance to the cemetery, well-removed from the TITANIC plot. An off-duty police officer was posted throughout the 29-hour operation. All graves were fully filled in by 6:00 p.m. May 18th, and the new sods were placed a few days later. Owing to the nature of the soil, and the drainage system at Fairview Lawn Cemetery, the remains associated with burials No. 240 and No. 281 had completely decomposed — including all hard tissue such as bone and teeth — rendering DNA analysis impossible. Fortunately a small fragment (6 cm) of poorly-preserved bone was recovered, as well as three teeth, from burial No. 4, the "Unknown Child". These four artefacts were the only human remains present in the burial.
The unknown male child was estimated to be about two years old when recovered from the sea very early on Sunday, April 21, 1912 by the men of the cable ship MACKAY-BENNETT. The "Coroner's records" in Halifax and the White Star Line printed lists speculate that the unknown child may be "Paulsson, (?) Baby", i.e. Gösta Leonard Pålsson from Bjuv, Skåne lån (province) in Sweden, who is known to have been born on January 3, 1910, hence was two years, three-and-a-half months old early on April 15, 1912 when the TITANIC sank.
Identification focuses on non-nuclear DNA known as mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which we all inherit exclusively from our mothers. Within this molecule is written and archived a “biochemical name", written in the simple four-letter code of the genetic alphabet. This family "name" is stable and persists in maternal family lines for many generations.
In order to attempt an identification of the unknown child as Gösta Pålsson, a maternal cousin was located for comparison to the “biochemical name" of Body No. 4. DNA recovery is being attempted by three separate individuals in two different labs, to ensure accurate and verified results. DNA analysis is inconclusive at this point; however, the analysis is ongoing. Analysis of the teeth by two separate dental experts confirms that the remains are those of a child less than one year old, and thus are not the remains of the Swedish child Gösta Pålsson.
Alan Ruffman, P.Geo.
Geomarine Associates Ltd.
5112 Prince Street
P.O. Box 41, Station M
Halifax, Nova Scotia
Canada B3J 2L4
Dr. Ryan Parr
Principal Investigator, Vice President
Research and Development
Genesis Geonomics Inc.
3rd Floor, 1294 Balmoral Street
(on the campus of Lakehead University)
Thunder Bay, Ontario
Canada P7B 5Z5
Submitted: April 22, 2002
Revised 21 May 2002
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Added to Encyclopedia Titanica Thursday 28th August 2003, last updated Wednesday 12th March 2014.