Biohistory, privacy and research integrity

Wednesday, October 5, 2016
by Cameron Shelley

In their article, "Biohistorical materials and contemporary privacy concerns-the forensic case of King Albert I", Larmuseau et al. use genetic forensics to test a theory about the demise of King Albert I of Belgium.  This highly-regarded man apparently died in 1934 in a climbing accident.  However, conspiracy theories developed to the effect that the King had been murdered elsewhere and his body then transported to another site to cover up the crime.

Genetics enter into the picture because a number of local villagers collected leaves stained with Albert's blood from the site where his body was found.  If the blood on those leaves could be attributed to Albert, then the official account of his death would find support.

However, as the authors note, such an investigation raises issues of privacy and social disruption.  In general, any analysis of Albert's DNA might have medical implications for his living relatives, e.g., the Belgian royal family.  Publication of such data may be problematic or embarrassing for them.  Also, there might also be dynastic implications if the DNA can be attributed to Albert but suggests that his successors are not his genetic descendants.  Finally, there might be implications for Albert's own reputation or historical estimation if he were discovered to have some particular genetic condition.

(On this last point, consider continuing speculation that Abraham Lincoln had Marfan's syndrome.  If true, what implications would it have, if any, for our understanding of his presidency?)

To deal with these implications, the researchers confined their analyses to mitochondrial and Y-chromosomes.  The former was used to test for genetic relationship to Anna Maria, Freifrau von Haxthausen, who shares maternal descent with Albert I.  The latter was used to test for genetic relationship to King Simeon of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, who shares paternal descent with Albert I.  

By narrowing their tests to similarities among these specific chromosomes, the researchers could address the matter of how closely the donor of the bloodstains was related to these relatives of Albert and not much else.

The result supported the claim that the donor of the bloodstains was probably Albert I.  This result is of interest historically since it rules out the theory that Albert was killed and then transported to the accident site.  Of course, it does not rule out the possibility that he was murdered where his body was found.

In any event, this research illustrates one way in which genetic research can be conducted in a way that facilitates legitimate scholarship but also respects the rights of those implicated by it.

Albert I of Belgium.jpg
By A Photo from the book Kronprinsessan Astrid (Stockholm, 1926), Public Domain,