Looking at Lincoln’s genes

Kim Knight at the Sunday Star Times chats to Kiwi scientist Ann Horsburgh about her role in National Geographic’s US documentary Lincoln’s Secret Killer, which screens on Sky’s History Channel on October 29.

ScreenshotExcerpt (full article not available online):

When pressed, Dr K. Ann Horsburgh will show you photographs of her Darwin cookies.

Perfectly round, and iced with Galapagos Island turtles, phylogenetic trees, strands of DNA and one labelled ”Elsie” for her 7-year-old daughter.

This is how a molecular anthropologist spends her downtime.

”It’s good, it’s mindless, I listen to books on tape and I ice cookies. It’s very relaxing.”

Last Tuesday, she bounced into an Auckland cafe in a fitted and flared purple dress, seamed stockings and flamenco-style heels. Not a lab coat in sight for the 39-year-old Kiwi ex-pat who features in an upcoming National Geographic documentary, running DNA tests on fabric stained with the blood of assassinated American president Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln was shot 149 years ago. But in the months before his killing, he’d aged dramatically, lost a huge amount of weight and his wife had purchased mourning clothes. Was the 16th leader of the United States – the man who abolished slavery and ended that country’s Civil War – already dying of cancer?

Avert your eyes, because here’s the spoiler: at the end of the documentary we learn this theory cannot be proved, however (cue dramatic pause), it hasn’t been disproved either.

Horsburgh, who specialises in the study of ancient DNA, was working at California’s Stanford University when she got an email about the project.

”I initially dismissed it as kook. You get those people – the yeti people, and that sort of thing.”