The remains of the young boy are â€œmost likely those of an English child, Sidney Leslie Goodwin,â€ Ryan Parr, Vice-President of Research and Development of Genesis Genomics in Ontario, and colleagues write in the June issue of the journal Forensic Science International: Genetics.
Recovered from the Atlantic’s icy waters five days after the luxury liner sank, the body of the small child was buried with some 150 other Titanic victims in a cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
An inscription on his granite gravestone read: “Erected to the memory of an unknown child whose remains were recovered after the Titanic disaster.”
A touching symbol of all of the children who died following the disaster in 1912, the “unknown child” also represents a compelling case of DNA error.
Following exhumation of the grave in 2001, which produced in a 2.4-inch-long fragment of an arm bone and three teeth, Parr and colleagues concluded that the child was Eino Viljami Panula, a 13-month-old Finnish infant who drowned with his parents in the disaster.
Examination of the tiny teeth and DNA sequencing resulted in the incorrect identification, write the researchers.
The genetic analysis involved mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) typing, a method used by forensics scientists. The procedure often uses two regions on mtDNA, which have very high rates of mutation and are therefore optimal for studying differences among people.
The two regions are called HV1 and HV2 (hypervariable region 1 and hypervariable region 2).
Since mitochondrial DNA is passed from a mother to her children, the researchers compared the unknown child’s DNA HV1 sequence with samples from maternal relatives of all six boys under age three who had died in the shipwreck.
Matches resulted in only two boys: the 13-month-old Eino Viljami Panula and the 19-month-old Sidney Leslie Goodwin.
Analysis of the child’s teeth narrowed the age between nine months and 15 months, thus pointing to Panula.
However, a pair of leather shoes recovered from the unknown child and held in the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax led the researchers to reconsider. The shoes were too large for a 13-month-old like the Finnish boy.
The researchers carried out more extensive mtDNA analysis, and this time also sequenced the HVS2 region, which positively confirmed that the unknown remains are Goodwin’s.
According to Parr, the test gave “98 percent certainty the identification is correct,” Live Science reports.
“The case demonstrates the benefit of targeted mtDNA coding region typing in difficult forensic cases, and highlights the need for entire mtDNA sequence databases appropriate for forensic use,” Parr and colleagues wrote.
The youngest of a family of eight who all died in the disaster, Goodwin was a third-class passenger traveling from Fulham, England, to Niagara Falls, N.Y.
His sad story begins when his father Fred, a 42-year-old electrician, sought out a better life by moving himself and his family to Niagara Falls, where a power station was about to open.
The family suffered the worst of luck. They had booked passage on a small Southampton steamer, but the trip was canceled because of a coal strike.
They were then transferred to the “unsinkable” luxury liner for her maiden voyage.
On the night of April 14, 1912, the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank off the Newfoundland Coast in the North Atlantic, taking the lives of some 1,500 people.
Fred, his wife Augusta, 43, and their children Lillian,16; Charles, 14; William, 11; Jessie, 10; Harold, 9; and Sidney Leslie, 19 months, all died.