• This skull, known as Cranium 80, was formally documented on the western coast of Nunavut's King William Island in 1993, and was believed to belong to a member of the ill-fated Franklin expedition. Recent DNA testing definitively linked it to crewman John Gregory. (Photo: Andrew Gregg)

For the first time in more than 170 years, it has finally proven possible to identify the remains of one of the men who sailed with Sir John Franklin to the Arctic in 1845. The work that made this possible has been long in the making; rarely have patience and perseverance been more fittingly rewarded.

The skull that was the source of the DNA that made this possible is quite a well-known one. It was first sighted by amateur Franklin sleuth Barry Ranford in 1993, who noticed it as he walked along the rocky beaches of Erebus Bay on King William Island. At first, he thought it must be an old bottle of bleach; it was only on closer examination that he realized it was a skull. An archeological and forensic team arrived the next year, with Margaret Bertulli and Anne Keenleyside as its lead investigators; their study of the main site, known by its Borden coordinates as NgLj-2, was published in 1997, and detailed — among other things — cut marks on many bones that were evidence of cannibalism. The nearby site NgLj-3, where the original skull was located, was not excavated at that time.

The skull in question, formally known as Cranium 80, had its moment in the sun in the 1990s on the cover of Equinox magazine, but after study was left in situ, protected in an aluminum case. And there it remained for nearly 20 years, until 2013 when it was removed for study by a new team, including Keenleyside, Douglas Stenton and Robert Park. They identified it as one of a large cache of bones reburied at the site by the Schwatka search expedition in 1879. Further work with this cranium involved a facial reconstruction by forensic artist Diana Trepkov; the resulting face, many noted, bore a resemblance to the daguerreotype (the first commercial successful photographic process) of James Reid, who served as ice master aboard Franklin’s ship HMS Erebus.

Stenton’s team managed to extract DNA from this skull, along with numerous other skeletal elements, and then the most time-consuming part of their work began: locating living descendants, hopefully along the maternal line, where mitochondrial DNA would remain constant over the generations. Numerous known descendants contributed samples, but until now there had never been a definite match. That has now changed: in a recently published paper, Stenton, Stephen Fratpietro, Keenleyside and Park announced that a match had been found for this very skull, which corresponded with the DNA of John Gregory, who served as engineer 1st class aboard Erebus.

We’re fortunate that we know something of Gregory. He was not a navy man, but a professional engineer employed by Maudslay, Sons and Field, a company based in the London borough of Lambeth that had been selected to handle the expedition’s ships’ ex-railway engines. According to this latest study, he was born somewhere between 1801 and 1804, making him between 41 and 44 years of age when the expedition sailed. And, although not noted in the study, his grandson, Edward John Gregory (1850-1909), was an acclaimed painter and member of the Royal Academy. The living descendant, a South African name Jonathan Gregory, was the source of the matching DNA.

This identification, dramatic as it is, may well be the first of many; Stenton and his team have DNA extracted from numerous other bones. All the same, this identification — the first of a Franklin expedition member since the graves at Beechey Island were discovered in 1850 — is a powerful and significant development in determining more about the unknown fates of most of the expedition’s crew.