DNA analysis helps identify boy buried at Florida reform school in 1941

Scientists at UNT Health Science Center used DNA analysis to help identify the remains of a 14-year-old boy buried more than 70 years ago at a reform school in Florida.

It is the first DNA association made from 55 sets of human remains excavated from unmarked graves at the now-closed Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Fla. While exact ages often are difficult to determine, the 73-year-old case is among the oldest to result in a positive identification with involvement from the missing and unidentified persons team at Fort Worth’s Health Science Center.

“No family should have to spend decades wondering about the fate of their loved ones,” said Dr. Arthur Eisenberg, Chair of Molecular and Medical Genetics at UNTHSC.

The excavation efforts are led by an anthropology team at the University of South Florida under the direction of Erin Kimmerle, PhD. UNTHSC scientists then test and analyze bones and teeth – along with DNA samples from surviving family to help identify the remains. So far, nine families with ties to the Dozier school have provided reference samples.

Bone cutAccording to the University of South Florida team, 14-year-old George Owen Smith was sent to Dozier in 1940. His mother wrote to the school’s superintendent in December 1940 asking about her son – only to receive a letter back saying no one knew where he was.

One month later, his family was told he was found dead under a house after escaping from the school. The family traveled to Marianna to claim his body, but when they arrived they were told the boy had been buried in an unmarked grave.

The positive association was made by testing a family reference sample from the boy’s surviving sister.

Since 2003, the Health Science Center has processed more than 5,200 human remains, making more than 1,100 DNA associations that led to identifications. In addition, it has analyzed more than 14,400 family reference samples, representing more than 8,000 missing person cases.  

UNTHSC is the nation’s only lab set in an academic center that is approved to upload genetic data for unidentified remains to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, a criminal justice database and software better known as CODIS.

The work in Florida and Fort Worth is supported by the National Institute of Justice, whose commitment to innovation and creativity in forensic anthropology and forensic DNA helps strengthen the forensic sciences and advance justice. Through a grant from the NIJ, UNTHSC also maintains the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), a national clearinghouse for missing person cases, unidentified remains, unidentified living individuals and unclaimed bodies.

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