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Did you know DNA analyses identified the Unknown Child lost from the Titanic?

The steps taken to identify an unclaimed child who perished with the Titanic

The Titanic was the ship of dreams. It was the largest steamer in the world at the time of her launch in 1912. With her watertight doors and the ability to stay afloat with two flooded compartments she was “unsinkable”. Or so they thought. We all know how the story ends. Not with Jack and Rose living happily ever after, but with more than 1500 people losing their lives, just 5 days after the Titanic sets off on her maiden voyage from Southampton. This is the story of Sidney Goodwin, the “Unknown Child” from the Titanic whose true identity remained lost for more than 89 years.

On 10th April 1912, the RMS Titanic left Southampton, England on her maiden voyage to New York City. More than 1300 passengers and 900 crew boarded the Titanic, including colonel John Jacob Astor IV one of the wealthiest people in the world at the time. The prominent businessmen, bankers and politicians enjoyed their extravagant dinners, heated swimming pool and theatre included in their exorbitantly priced first-class tickets, while the third-class passengers, mostly immigrants to the US, traveled in cramped conditions and were likely busy picturing their lives in a new world.

Dining room on the Titanic
Dining room on the Titanic

Just four days into the North Atlantic crossing, the Titanic hit a huge iceberg in the middle of the night, splitting open five of the sixteen watertight compartments. The ship’s designer, Thomas Andrews, who was on board informed Captain Edward Smith that the ship would sink in just two hours, because she could only stay afloat with four of the sixteen compartments flooded. As the ship rapidly flooded, passengers and crew were evacuated in lifeboats. But unfortunately the Titanic only carried lifeboats for about half of the approximately 2200 people on board, and many of the boats were launched only half-full. Less than three hours after the impact, the Titanic split in half and disappeared into the depths. More than 1500 passengers and crew, including the ship’s captain, were lost that night, either drowning with the ship or quickly perishing in the freezing cold waters of the North Atlantic. The RMS Carpathia reached the crash site less than two hours later, collecting just 712 survivors, and transporting them on to New York. This huge loss of lives prompted inquires in both Britain and the United States to improve maritime safety protocols.

The sinking of the largest ship afloat required extensive recovery efforts. The CS Mackay-Bennett, a cable repair ship, was the first recovery ship on the scene, five days after the sinking. With the sheer extent of bodies, the Mackay-Bennett quickly ran out of embalming supplies. Burial and maritime laws directed that any bodies had to the embalmed before a ship entered a Canadian port, hence only the bodies of first and second-class passengers were preserved, while many third-class passengers and crew were buried at sea, often without being identified. Over the next month, 333 bodies were recovered, two-thirds of which were identified, and the remainder buried with simple numbers based on the order of which they were discovered.

The body of the “Unknown Child” belonged to the latter category. He was buried in the Fairview Lawn Cemetery, Halifax, with a headstone dedicated “to the memory of an unknown child”. For a long time, this body was believed to be Gösta Leonard Pålsson, a two-year-old Swedish boy. This assumption was made based on the estimated age, a hand-written note reading “Paulson child?” included in the description of the body, and witnesses recalling the boy being washed overboard before the Titanic sank.

Grave of the "Unknown Child"
Grave of the “Unknown Child”

In 1998, the Titanic Ancient DNA project began on behalf of three families (including the Pålsson family) that were hoping to formally identify their lost family members. Three bodies were exhumed, but the acidic nature of the soil had completely dissolved two of the skeletons, and only a “small fragment of poorly preserved bone” and three teeth were discovered in the grave of the “Unknown Child”.

The DNA analysis focused on the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) genome. Both males and females inherit their mtDNA only from their mother (passed on mother to child); hence it remains unchanged through the maternal line. MtDNA is also useful for the analysis of degraded remains, because it is present in a much higher amount than nuclear DNA. Three regions of mtDNA can be analyzed when tracing ancestry – HVR1, HVR2 and the coding region. The initial analysis focused on just the HVR1 region. The mtDNA HVR1 profile from the bone fragment was compared to a maternal relative of Gösta Pålsson, clearly showing a different profile, and ruling out Gösta Pålsson as the identity of the “Unknown Child”.

The researchers then tracked down and collected DNA samples from maternal relatives of the other five young children lost from the Titanic. The mtDNA from female relatives of two of the missing children matched the profile from the bone and teeth fragments. These children were Sidney Leslie Goodwin (19 months of age) and Eino Viljam Panula (13 months). Based on the early stage of dental development in the teeth remains, it was then concluded that the “Unknown Child” was Eino Panula.

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However, the original genetic analyses were unable to rule out the possibility that Sidney Goodwin was the “Unknown Child”, and it was also noted that the shoes of the “Unknown Child” (kept in a museum with other Titanic artifacts) appeared to be much too large for a 13-month-old boy (Eino Panula), and could have instead belonged to 19-month-old Sidney Goodwin. These speculations of mistaken identity prompted researchers to analyze the mtDNA from the remains in more detail. The complete mtDNA sequences were obtained from all of the living relatives of the six young children lost on the Titanic. This identified three differences in the mtDNA between the references for Eino Panula and Sidney Goodwin. Sadly the bone and teeth fragments from the “Unknown Child” were too degraded to generate complete mtDNA profiles, but researchers were still able to obtain select sequences from parts of the HVR2 and coding regions. Only Sidney Goodwin’s references matched the sequence obtained from the skeletal remains, meaning that the remains are most likely those of Sidney Goodwin.

For 89 years, the “Unknown Child” was believed to be Gösta Pålsson, a two-year-old Swedish boy. However, this was ruled out following the first genetic analysis in 2001. Preliminary conclusions based on mtDNA and dental age claimed that the remains belonged to Eino Panula, a 13 month-old Finnish boy. But this was also refuted after a complete mtDNA analysis. The most recent and complete analysis of mtDNA illustrates the benefits of more thorough mtDNA sequencing, and the “Unknown Child” is no longer unknown. He has now been formally identified as Sidney Goodwin, a 19 month-old English boy.

These studies have defined the mtDNA profiles of six young children lost on the Titanic. If you have taken the DNA Maternal Ancestry Test, you can compare your mtDNA against these six profiles to see if you may have descended from one of the same maternal lineages.

References:

Just RS et al. (2011) Titanic’s unknown child: the critical role of the mitochondrial DNA coding region in a re-identification effort. Forensic Sci Int Genet. 5(3):231-5.

Titley KC et al. (2004) The Titanic Disaster: Dentistry’s Role in the Identification of an ‘Unknown Child’. J Can Dent Assoc. 70(1):24–8.

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