Controversy erupts over WWI Australian soldier's skull at Mutter Museum

A controversy has erupted over a skull that had been on display at Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum of an unknown Australian soldier who was shot in the face and fatally wounded in World War I.

Lynda Voltz,  the opposition Labor Party’s shadow Veterans Affairs minister in the New South Wales Legislative Council, is calling for the immediate return of the skull, which has an intact bullet fragment above the right eye, after reading about it in an article in the Guardian.

The soldier was wounded Sept. 28, 1917, during the Battle of Polygon Wood near Ypres, Belgium. His skull was donated to the Mutter by Philadelphia ophthalmologist and surgeon W.T. Shoemaker, who treated the soldier at a U.S. Army hospital in France.

“We need immediate action to identify this soldier and ensure his proper burial,” Voltz said in a statement. “He is not a medical curiosity. No one knows who he is, where he came from or if his family knows anything about his death, more than the fact that he did not survive.”

The Mutter, in a statement, said the medical museum is “already in communication with the appropriate officials within the Australian Army regarding the cited specimen.”

“This is being treated with the highest regard to protocol and precedent for such specimens,” the statement said. “The museum will release a further statement when appropriate.”

An online link to a photo of the skull now directs to the Mutter’s home page.

Gillian Ladley, a spokeswoman for the museum, says the Mutter has returned specimens in the past, particularly under the Native American Graves and Protection and Repatriation Act.

The Guardian article quoted from a text that accompanied the photo.

“This soldier survived his initial injuries and treatments,” it said. “But, five days after his injuries, blind and disoriented, he pulled out the bandage materials in his mouth that packed the wounds. He bled to death.”

Voltz, who was in Belgium for a remembrance ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Polygon Wood, said she will seek to determine how the skull ended up in a museum.

As far back as World War I, Britain authorized the collection of specimens without permission from wounded or dead soldiers for medical education as long as the individuals from whom they were taken were not identified in relation to the specimens.

A current exhibit at the Mutter focuses on Civil War medicine and includes specimens collected during the war.

Meanwhile, members of a World War I military history forum in Britain believe they have identified the Australian soldier whose skull is in the Mutter.

Based on when the soldier was shot and when he died as well as the nature of his wounds and location of Shoemaker at the time, they say they believe the skull was that of Australian Pvt. Thomas Hurdis, 27, of New South Wales, whose grave is near where the hospital was located in France.

“It is clear to me that this is no longer just a skull of an unknown man but the remains of a known soldier who, we are confident, has descendants still living in Australia,” said John Hartley, a military historian and author who is a member of the forum. “As such, we would urge the museum to release the skull to the Australian authorities so that it can be buried with his other remains by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.”