Mitochondrial DNA: Sinking a Century-Old Myth

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By: Kimberly Shen

Edited by: Arianna Winchester  

Though we may think we know everything about the destruction of the Titanic over a century ago, new scientific developments are enabling us to find out new information about what actually happened on that tragic night in 1912. Modern methods of mitochondrial DNA testing has been able to tell us exactly who was on that boat and if they were able to survive the sunken ship or not.

Two year-old Loraine Allison sailed on the Titanic as a first-class passenger along with her parents, some of their servants, and her baby brother, Trevor. Shortly after the ship struck the iceberg, the family maid and Trevor were able it to make it to one of the lifeboats. However, Loraine and her parents got lost in the disaster. Loraine’s father’s body was eventually discovered, but the bodies of Loraine and her mother were never found. Loraine was presumed dead for the next 30 years.

Loraine AllisonIn 1940, a woman named Helen Kramer was featured on a radio show to claim that she was the long-lost Loraine Allison. She said that just before the Titanic sank, her father saved her placing her in a lifeboat with the Titanic’s naval architect, Thomas Andrews. After learning that Loraine’s parents died in the wreckage, Andrews took on the role of an adoptive father. Kramer desperately tried to convince the public of her supposed identity and subsequently tried to claim the Allison family fortune. However, the members of the Allison family dismissed her claims as fraudulent. Kramer ultimately passed away in 1992, unrecognized as baby Loraine.

Nevertheless, in April 2012, Debrina Woods, Kramer’s granddaughter, rekindled her grandmother’s campaign by launching a website again claiming that her grandmother was indeed the long lose Loraine Allison. As a response, a group of forensic scientists began the Loraine Allison Identification Project to compare mitochondrial DNA from female descendants of Kramer to descendants of the Allison family. Since mitochondrial DNA is inherited through the mother and generally stays the same from one generation to the next, mitochondrial DNA is a great tool for tracing ancestry through females. Mitochondrial DNA was extracted from Debrina’s half-sister, Deanne Jennings, and compared to that of Sally Kirkelie, who was the grand-niece of Loraine’s mother.

In December 2013, the forensic scientists of the Loraine Allison Identification Project said that their mitochondrial DNA testing proved that Helen Kramer was not Loraine Allison. Thus, although Loraine’s body was never recovered, these results seemed to conclusively prove that she did not survive the sinking of the Titanic.

RMS_Titanic_3

Even though the results of the mitochondrial DNA testing disproved Helen Kramer’s claims, Debrina Woods still continues her campaign to this day. In her most recent post in February 2015, Debrina said that she remains committed to completing a book and screenplay about her grandmother’s story in order to bring the “real truths” to light.

David Allison, the grandson of Loraine’s uncle, responded to the results of the mitochondrial DNA testing and Debrina’s continued campaign, saying that, “The Allisons never accepted Mrs. Kramer’s claim, but the stress it caused was real. It forced my ancestors to relive painful memories.”

His sister, Nancy Bergman, agreed. Bergman thought that Kramer’s old argument and Woods’ willingness to keep that alive is “all about money…Debrina wants to write a book and no doubt there are others out there who want to profit from our story. It is our story. Leave us in peace,” she begs.

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