Dr. Sarah Lockyer: The Science of Honouring the Fallen
The remains of Canadian soldiers, fallen during the First and Second World Wars, find themselves in the laboratory of Dr. Sarah Lockyer as part of the Casualty Identification Program. In order to connect those remains to a fallen soldier, and ultimately a family, Sarah uses her expertise in forensic anthropology and creates a human connection to Canada’s military history.
(SL) The best part of my job, I would have to say is getting to meet the family members and understanding what it means not only to the soldiers that this person who died typically a 100 years ago has now been identified, but then being able to meet the families and understand what it means to them.
My name is Dr. Sarah Lockyer. I’m the Casualty Identification Coordinator and I work at the Directorate of History and Heritage.
So, I discovered forensic anthropology while watching TV when I was 16 years old and watching a true crime show called Exhibit A.
As a forensic anthropologist, I analyze human skeletal remains so that we can create a biological profile with the hopes of identifying that individual.
(SL) So, when it comes to how remains are discovered, it’s typically because of construction or farm work and things like that. And typically, we’ll get the call from Commonwealth War Graves Commission who have been able to determine that the individual is likely Canadian. Typically, it’s because there’s something that says “Canada” on it that was found with the remains.
And then, when I go overseas and I’m able to do the analysis of the remains, I lay the remains out in anatomical order, I take a skeletal inventory. So, I mark which bones are present, which one are absent and then, I look at very key parts of the skeleton to be able to, like I said, put together a biological profile of that individual to hopefully identify them.
So, being able to witness a burial and sort of the culmination of an entire investigation, especially when we are able to positively identify someone, it is incredibly rewarding and it’s quite a privilege to be able to be there. Because as a forensic anthropologist, the goal is always to return an identity to an individual.
Part of all of that of us moving forward is trying to see if there are new tools out there that can improve how we do what we do. And one of the new tools that we’ve recently put out is a registration form on our website so that family members who have a relative who went missing during the First and Second World War can give us their contact information. This will then allow us to be able to have a direct point of contacting the families and be able to hopefully find DNA donors so that we don’t have to resort to identifying certain sets of remains as unknown, which is what we really don’t want to do.
As it relates to the bigger picture, I really think that my job helps with outreach for National Defence as well both military and with the public. Of being able to make a connection, make a human connection to some of the military history. That’s both important for Canada in general but as well for the military. And it allows people to connect on a much more fundamental emotional level as opposed to just having some facts about some historical battles. But you get a range of different reactions, but it’s always predominantly positive.