Off with his paper! Some authors want to retract claim to have identified Henry IV’s head

Henry IV, via Wikimedia
Henry IV, via Wikimedia

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)” [1] 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 [2]. 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 [3]. 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 [3]. A second major argument was the genetic analysis [4] which led to the conclusion that the analyzed samples in the study published this year [2] were not from the French Kings.

Consequently, on the basis of the above information, the retraction of the article [1] 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

12 thoughts on “Off with his paper! Some authors want to retract claim to have identified Henry IV’s head”

  1. There should be no retraction. That is obvious.

    Anyone who wants to work on this mystery will need to cite the original work. They will need to compare and analyze the merits of the different publications on this head. This _cannot_ be done if the original work is retracted.

    In my view, retraction should never be done simply because later work contradicts the conclusions. What if further new information suggests that this really is the king’s head?

      1. A new hypothesis has emerged: maybe Henry IV had two heads. In which case researchers would have to turn to the two-headed snake literature for clues.

      2. “So they should just publish “Henry the IVth, Part 2″?”

        Yes, exactly. Here is a comment contained in one of the links above:

        “Philippe Charlier, author of the 2010 study that identified the head as Henri IV, dismissed the new research. He said he and colleagues have found an exact match between a three-dimensional comparison of the ancient head and Henri IV’s death mask. He said the work will be published soon in a forensic journal.”

        More work will be coming out. The issue is not settled. No retraction should be entertained.

  2. I agree there should be no retraction. The first paper used one set of ‘measurements” and drew a conclusion. Subsequent work, using other techniques is inconsistent to the level that the first paper’s conclusions appear untenable. That is science. it would be a different matter if the first paper had something “wrong” about it, but that is not the case from the facts presented. So Henri IV deuxieme partie, as he might have said. There may even be a third installment, we will have to wait and see.

  3. By the way: Am I the only one who has issues with a high-impact journal like BMJ publishing articles not based on scientific grounds, but rather for obscure reasons such as humor or even bizarreness?

    1. Yes, you are.

      Just kidding. Personally, I like it. An occassional issue like that is fun to read, and may even help to get the general public more interested in science. But of course, I can see how it could also be viewed as a waste of journal space

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