The Women Behind the Discovery of Richard III

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When I took a weekend holiday in Leicester, England, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the remains of Richard III, now interred at the Leicester Cathedral, as well as the museum that tells the story of their recent discovery and exhumation. They have done a truly wonderful job with this exhibition and I strongly recommend anyone who can manage it to go.IMG_5836The discovery of this Medieval monarch, killed and buried more than five hundred years ago, is an incredibly unlikely and dramatic story, a real triumph of both historical research and modern science. I was particularly struck by the central role that women played throughout the story.

First, there is Philippa Langley, probably the single most important person in the rediscovery of King Richard. It was the unwavering passion of Langley, a screenwriter and secretary of the Scottish chapter of the Richard III society, that provided the steady persistence necessary to make the project a reality. She relentlessly raised both money and awareness and was the principle organizer of the exhumation effort. Of the first time she stood in the now-famous car park, she said, “The strangest feeling just washed over me. I thought, ‘I am standing on Richard’s grave.’” Indeed she was.

Langley was not the first woman to suspect the car park. It was an essay by Ms. Audrey Strange that first correctly speculated the location of Richard III. In fact, Strange first petitioned the city of Leicester for permission to excavate the car park back in 1962. Her request was denied. She published an essay describing her careful research in 1975 and, fortunately for all of us, it caught the attention of Langley some 30 years later.

Then, there is Dr. Jo Appleby, the osteology expert from the University of Leicester. It was Dr. Appleby’s careful work that confirmed the age and sex of the individual whose remains were found, and confirmed the condition of scoliosis, an affliction that King Richard was said to have suffered from.

Next we have Dr. Turi King, a genetic anthropologist, who led the effort to confirm the identity of the remains by comparing the DNA to known relatives of Richard III. (Note: many sources cite these present-day relatives as “descendants,” but Richard has no direct descendants. He fathered only one child who died before adulthood. Dr. King used DNA from a descendent of Richard’s sister to confirm the mitochondrial haplotype.) King has since completed the sequencing of Richard III’s entire genome. Because SCIENCE.

Finally, we have Dr. Caroline Wilkinson, then of the University of Dundee, who performed the reconstruction of Richard III’s face using only the recovered skull as her guide. The Richard III team contracted Dr. Wilkinson without telling her who the subject was, so as to not bias her work. She produced the face of a man with a striking resemblance to the oldest surviving portraits of Richard III.

These are the women that rescued Richard of York out of the 15th century dirt underneath a civil service car park. Of course, there were other women and men involved in this truly Herculean effort, but we do well to give these impressive women special recognition.

Nathan H. Lents is a Professor of Biology at John Jay College and Director of the Honors College.

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