The BMJ is well-known for its annual Christmas issue, which New York Times medical correspondent Lawrence Altman calls
a lighter and sometimes brighter side of medicine, publishing unusual articles that vary from simply amusing to bizarre to creative or potentially important.
The 2010 issue was no exception, featuring a paper called “Multidisciplinary medical identification of a French king’s head (Henri IV)” in which:
Philippe Charlier and a multidisciplinary team explain how they confirmed an embalmed head to be that of the French king Henry IV using a combination of anthropological, paleopathological, radiological, forensic, and genetic techniques
The paper generated a fair amount of news coverage. But now, some of Charlier’s co-authors want to retract that paper, based on questions about the findings, notably a study published earlier this month. They write in a response posted at the BMJ yesterday:
In 2010, the article entitled “Multidisciplinary medical identification of a French king’s head (Henri IV)”  was published in your Journal. Results of the genetic comparison of the mummified head and the presumptive blood from Louis XVI were published earlier this year . Robust scientific arguments recently published negate the conclusions of the studies carried out by Charlier et al. Many historical facts calling into question the identification have been detailed by the French historian Philippe Delorme . He highlighted, in particular, the absence of craniotomy, a consistent finding for Kings and Princes who died in the same period, and also the lack of traceability of that head, that anonymously emerged in 1919 . A second major argument was the genetic analysis  which led to the conclusion that the analyzed samples in the study published this year  were not from the French Kings.
Consequently, on the basis of the above information, the retraction of the article  is now justified, as a rigorous scientific anthropological study should have excluded the hypothesis (and the findings) that the head belonged to Henri IV.
Just four of the paper’s 15 authors signed the letter. Charlier, the corresponding author, did not, and dismissed the genetic analysis in comments to Phys.Org earlier this month. We asked him whether he agreed with the letter, and will update with anything we learn.
We also asked Tony Delamothe, who has edited the Christmas issue for many years, whether the journal would be retracting the paper, and he told us they hadn’t made up their minds yet.
The paper has been cited three times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge — once by an independent BMJ commentary, once by a letter in the BMJ by Charlier et al, and once by a 2013 paper in Forensic Science International by Charlier et al. It has also been subject to a harmless but amusing correction:
We recently published a correction (BMJ 2011;342:d539, doi:10.1136/bmj.d539) to this article by Philippe Charlier and colleagues (BMJ 2010;341:c6805, doi:10.1136/bmj.c6805) as we had been alerted by one of the authors that her name had been submitted to us with the wrong spelling and missing her middle initial. Her name is Paula F Campos (not Paola Campos, as was published in the article). There are several authors of this article with the initials PC or PFC, and this makes the published Contributors section ambiguous in this respect. Unfortunately, in the recent correction, we tried to clarify the role of Paula F Campos and got it wrong. Here are the contributions of the authors whose initials are (or were) either PC or PFC: Philippe Charlier conceived and headed the project and did the anthropological and paleopathological analyses and the microscopic and endoscopic examinations. Pierre F Chaillot did cranial measurements from computed tomography reconstructions. Paula F Campos did ancient DNA extractions and analyses. Philippe Charlier wrote most of the manuscript.
Retractions in the BMJ are quite rare. We found only three since 1998, and none of articles in the Christmas issue. The most recent retraction, however, is of a 1974 letter about “cello scrotum” that feels as though it could have appeared in such an issue.
Hat tip: Rolf Degen