Walter McCrone, Debunker of Legends, Dies at 86

New York Times/July 26, 2002
By Paul Lewis

Walter C. McCrone, a chemical analyst who used his microscope to conclude that the Shroud of Turin never enveloped the body of Jesus and that a famous ancient map belonging to Yale University is probably a fake, died on July 10 in Chicago, long his hometown. He was 86.

Dr. McCrone, a pioneer in the art of chemical microscopy, also produced evidence contradicting the theory that Napoleon was poisoned on St. Helena by agents of the re-established French monarchy: the arsenic levels he found in the emperor's hair were simply too low.

On the other hand, when he put samples of Beethoven's hair under a microscope, he discovered that the composer had suffered from lead poisoning, possibly contracted at health spas. That exposure might explain the alternating fits of depression and towering rages that Beethoven suffered in later life, and perhaps his deafness.

In 1978, Dr. McCrone declared that his examination of the Shroud of Turin, a 14-foot strip of linen bearing the shadowy imprint of a dead man, was not the cloth in which Jesus was buried after the Crucifixion, contrary to what pious pilgrims had believed for centuries, but instead a "fantastic work of art" from the Middle Ages.

The image, he found, had been painted onto the cloth in medieval times with red ocher and vermilion pigments. Dr. McCrone speculated that this had probably been done by priests hoping to create a "relic" for their church that would attract pilgrims and their donations.

In 1988, independent carbon dating concluded, as Dr. McCrone had, that the linen dated from a time about 13 centuries after the Crucifixion. A 1999 analysis of pollen grains taken from the shroud, however, placed its origin near Jerusalem before the eighth century.

Some four years before his finding on the shroud, Dr. McCrone had broken some bad news to Yale: its famous Vinland Map - which had been regarded as evidence that at the time of Columbus, some Europeans already knew of a vast land across the Atlantic between Europe and Asia - was, he said, a forgery.

While the parchment the map was drawn on was medieval, Dr. McCrone showed that the ink used contained a crystalline form of titanium dioxide, rare in nature and not commercially available as a pigment until the 1920's.

The university, which was given the map by a rich benefactor, now reluctantly admits that Dr. McCrone was probably right.

"Although the Vinland Map continues to have supporters as well as detractors, there is increasing scientific evidence suggesting it is a 20th-century production," Robert Babcock, curator of early manuscripts at Yale's Beinecke Library, said yesterday.

Walter Cox McCrone was born on June 9, 1916, in Wilmington, Del. He received his undergraduate degree and doctorate in chemistry at Cornell University.

He taught microscopy and materials science beginning in 1944 at what is now the Illinois Institute of Technology, leaving in 1956 to set up his own research company, McCrone Associates, in Chicago. The company undertook analytic work for businesses, museums, art collectors and law enforcement agencies.

He later founded McCrone Accessories and Components, which advised on the design of microscopes.

Dr. McCrone, who published some 600 articles about microscopic analysis, was also editor and publisher of a professional journal, The Microscope.

He is survived by his wife, the former Lucy Beman.

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