Biohistory guidelines urged

Exhumations, DNA testing of historical figures draw interest, but ethics are questioned

Maria Anderson(manderson@the-scientist.com)
Apr 12, 2004

Exhuming corpses and testing DNA from artifacts and relatives to determine whether Napoleon and other celebrated historical figures were poisoned or suffered from genetic diseases are titillating uses for modern genetic technology, but some researchers are calling for stricter guidelines governing such practices.

In the latest issue of Science,Lori Andrews and colleagues from the Chicago Historical Society and the Illinois Institute of Technology review the state of biohistory research and suggest that ethical guidelines may benefit researchers as well as relatives and descendants of the celebrated figures under scrutiny.

Increasingly, people are using genetic testing to answer historical questions about paternity, behaviors, or sudden deaths. The University of Maryland School of Medicine hosts an annual Historical Clinicopathological Conference to discuss the science that uncovered how a famous historical figure died. In 1998, researchers used DNA testing to determine that Thomas Jefferson fathered a child with Sally Hemings.

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