Science & Tech

Amelia Earhart’s Remains May Finally Have Been Confirmed

The remains of groundbreaking and courageous aviator Amelia Earhart may finally have been confirmed, thanks to a recent scientific study.

Amelia Mary Earhart was born on July 24, 1897. As a girl, she was fascinated by the opportunities for women in areas mostly dominated by men. She had a scrapbook with newspaper articles about such women, celebrating the accomplishments of early women film directors and producers and leaders in advertising, management and mechanical engineering.

That exposure may have encouraged her to seek out doing something different from any of her peers. After graduating from Hyde Park High School in 1915, she went on to attend Ogontz, a girls’ finishing school near Philadelphia. She did not finish but instead quit to work during World War I as a nurse’s aide in Canada at a military hospital. She moved on from there to go to college and then became a social worker at Denison House, a Boston-area settlement house.

Her interest in flying came on when she had the opportunity to attend a stunt-flying exhibition while in her late teens. She and a friend were watching it when a pilot swooped down close above them. She watched the plane with a mix of fear and excitement. Commenting about the event later, she said, “I did not understand it at the time, but I believe that little red airplane said something to me as it swished by.” Not long after, on December 28, 1920, a pilot named Frank Hawks gave Earhart her first ride on a plane. That ride was the final push that caused her to change the direction of her life. “By the time I had gotten two or three hundred feet off the ground, I knew I had to fly.”

Less than a week later – on January 3, 1921 – Earhart took her first flying lesson. She loved it so much that in only six months she saved enough money to purchase her own plane. It was a used two-seater Kinner Airster biplane painted yellow. That plane, which Earhart called “The Canary,” carried her into the air to set her first record as a woman pilot by making it to 14,000 feet above the ground.

She went on to achieve many other firsts as a woman pilot. One of the biggest of those was when she became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean.

That happened when the famous book publisher and publicist George P. Putnam, along with other project backers, called her in 1928 to invite her to be the first woman to make it across the Atlantic. It was a major headline-grabber because three pilots had died earlier attempting exactly what Earhart was to do. Eventually, on June 17, 1928, she and pilot Bill Stulz and co-pilot Louis E. Gordon started out on the mission. They flew out of Trepassey Harbor, Newfoundland, in a Fokker F.VII and landed in Wales at Burry Port about 21 hours later. The celebrations were big on their arrival there and even bigger on arrival in the United States later. There, Earhart was given a tickertape parade in New York, followed by a reception at the White House with President Calvin Coolidge.

Earhart continued her flying pursuits, accomplishing other firsts and setting other records. Among them were:

  • first woman to fly an Autogyro to 18,415 feet
  • first person to fly solo from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Oakland, California, on January 11, 1935
  • first person to fly solo from Mexico City to Newark, New Jersey

Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan in Australia preparing for the next leg of their journey.

After setting those records, Earhart made a plan to become the first woman to fly around the world. After one false start in March, her journey finally began on June 1, 1937. She and Fred Noonan, her navigator, took off on that day for what was to be a 29,000-mile journey.

By June 29, the two had traveled approximately 22,000 of those total miles along the way, landing in Lae, Papua New Guinea.

Their next stop was to be Howland Island, 2,556 miles from Lae and located in the mid-Pacific. It was a long stretch to reach for their plane, so Earhart and Noonan took everything possible out of the plane to reduce its weight and extend its flying range by an extra 274 miles. The island they were headed for was also tiny, only a half a mile wide and 1.5 miles long, so it would be difficult to find even with excellent navigation. To help them, the U.S. Coast Guard put its radio contact vessel Itasca just off the shore of the island. Two other ships owned by the United States were also put in position along the flight route with every light lit up, to act as ocean markers.

On July 2, the flight began. Though the weather forecasts had initially been good for the flight, Earhart and Noonan took off into dark skies with occasional rain. When morning arrived, Earhart radioed Itasca to report that there was cloudy weather. Later radio communications became faint, so Earhart asked Itasca to track her. At 7:42 a.m., she radioed Itasca to say, “We must be on you, but we cannot see you. Fuel is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet.” Itasca responded but received no direct answer to any of its calls. At 8:45 a.m., Earhart called Itasca with the message “We are running north and south.” That was her last message.

Many searched for Earhart, but she was never found alive. And up until now, there has not been enough proof to indicate where she likely ended up. That proof may have finally come through, however, after an extensive study by Richard Jantz of the University of Tennessee’s Knoxville Campus.

The analysis started with a new look at the measurements of bones gathered from the island of Nikumaroro in the South Pacific.

Those bones were gathered when a search party in 1940 discovered them along with other materials suggesting this might be Earhart’s final resting place. Those other things included a woman’s shoe, an empty sextant box and a Bénédictine bottle. The bottle was of the same kind Earhart carried, and the sextant box was for a Brandis Navy Surveying Sextant, the kind that her co-pilot had used. The bones included a humerus, a radius, a tibia, a fibula and both femora.

The bones have long since disappeared, but those other items have lasted. At the time the bones were originally discovered, it was thought that they might have been from another disaster in the area. That was the wreck of the Norwich City vessel along the western reef of the island. That vessel had 11 men on board and no women, and most assumed that all had been killed either in the wreck itself or soon after. That wreck was more than four miles from where the remains lay alongside the woman’s shoe, sextant box and bottle.

The new study began when Jantz, professor emeritus of anthropology and director emeritus of UT’s Forensic Anthropology Center, took a new look at the remains.

To do so, he looked at a set of seven bone measurements originally taken by physician D. W. Hoodless, principal of the Central Medical School in Fiji at the time. Hoodless had studied them and decided they were from a “middle-aged stocky male about 5′5.5” in height.”A later review of the same measurements in 1998 suggested that Hoodless might have been wrong in his assessment. In that review, the conclusion suggested instead that this was a woman of European ancestry who was between 5’6” and 5’8” tall. All of that, including Earhart’s German ancestry, was consistent with the remains possibly being hers.

Jantz’s investigation took the measurements Hoodless had made and applied a number of new technologies and methods to analyze them. Those included Fordisc, a computer program used to estimate everything from sex, ancestry and stature based on skeletal measurements. The program happens to be used by most board-certified forensic anthropologists in the world. It was also co-created by Jantz.

Using Fordisc and other collateral information, Jantz first concluded that Hoodless had made a mistake when he identified the remains as being those of a man. The data was clear that the bones came from a woman. That also backed up the conclusions of the 1998 study.

Next, Jantz began to analyze the likelihood that the bones might have been Earhart’s. To do this, he used radius and humerus (bone) lengths for her using photographs of her next to a known-sized object. He calculated Earhart’s tibia length based on the measurements of her clothing at the George Palmer Putnam Collection of Amelia Earhart Papers at Purdue University. Those measurements were gathered by a seamstress from the time. They included Earhart’s waist circumference and inseam length.

After this analysis, Jantz concluded that the bone measurements were closer to those of Earhart than to 99% of others he had in a large reference sample.

In his recent paper describing his analysis, Jantz said that Earhart “was known to have been in the area of Nikumaroro Island, where she went missing, and human remains were discovered [there] that are entirely consistent with her and inconsistent with most other people.” That may not fully resolve everything for all, but it is the most thorough such analysis made to date.

Jantz’s paper, “Amelia Earhart and the Nikumaroro Bones: A 1941 Analysis Versus Modern Quantitative Techniques,” was published in the journal Forensic Anthropology, Vol. 1, No. 2.