Solved? The mystery of the ANZAC skull

The recent and somewhat macabre story in the Guardian by Paul Daley (25 September) about the skull of a First World War Australian soldier on display at the Mütter Museum in America is a shocking one.

Two questions are proffered as a lead in to Daley’s article. Who is he, and why is he there?

Putting aside the unethical act of removing a dead soldier’s head from his body for public display, the answer to why the skull is in the museum of the College of Physicians in Philadelphia is elusive.

The First World War was a period in which medical curiosity was still somewhat informed by Victorian values and in the name of advancing the general cause of science the surgeon responsible for the removal of the head, may have decided the case of this fallen Anzac was in the public interest. The college already had a significant skull collection.

The ‘who is he?’ may not be as mysterious as is first supposed. The provenance of the skull provides specific information from which a search can be undertaken. It is stated that the soldier was wounded on the 28 September 1917 at Polygon Wood in Belgium and that he died five days later. If accurate, that would place the date of death as 3 October 1917.

A search of the Australian casualty database on the Australian War Memorial website reveals 151 names of soldiers who died on 3 October 1917. A search of the service records of those men held at the National Archives shows that the majority were killed in action as the Australians advanced against Broodseinde Ridge.

A handful of those listed were wounded in days previous. One among them who stands out as a possible candidate as to whose skull it might be, is Private Thomas Hurdis (2919), 59th Battalion. Hurdis was a 26-year-old labourer from Newtown in Sydney’s inner west who enlisted in September 1916.

Hurdis’ service record gives both the 25 and 26 September as the date on which he was wounded. He is listed as suffering a shrapnel wound to the face and right arm. The story of the skull stated that the ascending ramus of the right jaw had been destroyed by shrapnel. A gunshot wound that struck the left frontal sinus above the eye may not have been readily discernible on the initial examinations given the severity of the shrapnel wound.

On 28 September Hurdis was moved from the 3rd Australian Field Ambulance to No.2 Canadian Casualty Clearing Station and from there by ambulance train to the 16th General Hospital at Le Treport, France, where he subsequently died.

The 16th General Field Hospital was a British hospital that was taken over by the United States Army in June of 1917. To this hospital was sent the Pennsylvanian (Philadelphia) Base Hospital unit.

Captain William Toy Shoemaker, the donor of the skull, was an ophthalmologist and surgeon with the U.S. Medical Reserve Corps at Le Treport. Also, Captain Edwin Shoemaker, a relative perhaps, was a dental surgeon and later head of the X-Ray section at the hospital.

As eye and mouth specialists the Shoemakers could quite possibly have had Hurdis’ case referred to them or, if not directly involved, to have been at least aware of his case.

There is no guarantee that the skull on display is that of Thomas Hurdis. However, the nature of his injury and the place of his wounding are consistent with the provenance of the skull. The placement of the skull’s donor, W. T. Shoemaker, at the hospital where Hurdis died makes for tantalizing conjecture.

Thomas Hurdis’ dental record is contained on his service record file. If DNA samples are required there are 11 listings of the name Hurdis in the New South Wales white pages.

The body of Private Thomas Hurdis, whole or otherwise, is buried at Mont Huon Military Cemetery, Le Treport, plot 4, row C, grave 1A. If the truth of this matter is to be uncovered, that may be the best place to start.


Here is a link to the article by Paul Daley that prompted this research blog: