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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

DNA finally identifies child killed in Titanic sinking

Thursday, November 7, 2002

TORONTO -- Nearly a century ago, Canadian sailors buried an unidentified infant who died on the Titanic and, touched by the tragedy, called him the Unknown Child -- a symbol of all the children who were lost when the luxury liner sank.

Now at last, the child is known. On Tuesday, Magda Schleifer, a retired Finnish bank clerk, visited the grave, which DNA tests have now established holds the remains of one of her relatives.

"First I thought this could not be true," Schleifer, 68, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Schleifer had long known that her grandmother's sister, Maria, had died with her five children -- including her 13-month-old son, Eino Panula -- when the Titanic went down in 1912, causing the deaths of 1,503 people.

A Finnish survivor had told Schleifer's grandmother that Maria was offered a seat in one of the Titanic's lifeboats. "But she refused to leave the boat only with Eino, while her four other children were still in another part of the boat," Schleifer said.

Now, after two years of study, researchers in Canada have filled in the story, matching DNA remains taken from the grave to Schleifer.

The tests, completed last month, showed the Unknown Child was Eino, said Dr. Ryan Parr of Lakehead University in Ontario and historian Alan Ruffman of the Geomarine Associates LTD in Halifax.

Of the 150 victims of the Titanic buried in three graveyards in Halifax, 45 remain unidentified. But grave number four stands out as a symbol of the tragedy's youngest victims, ever since Canadian sailors erected a stone memorial on it reading, "Erected to The Memory of An Unknown Child."

When scientists exhumed the remains from the grave last year, they found only a wrist bone weighing less than a quarter ounce and three teeth.

Parr said a copper medallion inscribed with "Our Babe" placed in the coffin by the sailors may have helped preserve the bone fragment from oxidation.

"The romantic explanation is that the sailors felt so much for that little boy, that they put the medallion to make sure he was preserved long enough for us to find him and identify him," Parr said.

While police generally work with recent DNA samples, analyzing samples almost 100 years old is more difficult.

The Paleo-DNA Laboratory at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, on the north shore of Lake Superior, is among the few facilities in the world capable of extracting degraded DNA from old samples, said Jack Ballantyne, a DNA expert from the National Center for Forensic Science in Orlando, Fla.

"Based on my knowledge, it sounds pretty reasonable they have come with accurate results," Ballantyne said.

The identification process focused on mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA, which is inherited from the mother.

A famous case of ancient mtDNA testing involved Russia's last czar, Nicholas II and his wife, who were killed in 1918. Their remains were exhumed in 1991 and identified a few years later by tests in Britain and the United States.

Parr said it took two years of research to find the name of the Unknown Child.

Once the testing at Lakehead University and Hebrew University in Jerusalem provided similar findings, Ruffman began searching for living relatives.

Schleifer said their findings have brought closure to the story of Maria and Eino. Asked if she would like to have Eino's coffin brought to Finland, she said, "Definitely not."

"He belongs to the people of Halifax who took care of him for 90 years," she said.


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