2011 Science, Technology and Environment

Fenella France

Developed innovative imaging techniques to unearth new historical information from some of the nation’s most treasured documents, including the Declaration of Independence.

While an original rough draft of the Declaration of Independence is filled with strike-outs and corrections made by Thomas Jefferson, one word that he tried to expunge sparked the interest of Fenella France, a preservation scientist at the Library of Congress.

Using a sophisticated and safe imaging technique that she helped develop, France confirmed that Jefferson originally described the American public in the Declaration of Independence as “subjects” before replacing it with the word “citizens.”

She said Jefferson’s “very deliberate attempt to write over it and cover it” illustrates an important shift in his mindset as he helped proclaim American independence from Great Britain in 1776. In many cases, words were simply crossed out, but in this case he wrote over it and tried to wipe it out of existence, France said.

This important discovery is one of the many contributions made by France, a New Zealand native and naturalized American citizen, to the better understanding and preservation of our nation’s rich history.

France has applied the same innovative imaging techniques to uncover new and revealing information regarding the Gettysburg Address, old maps and other historic documents. She also has worked on the Star Spangled Banner preservation project at the Smithsonian Institution, on a World Trade Center artifacts project and at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum.

“Fenella has positioned herself in a way that she is making a discovery about American history that no American has,” said Roger Easton, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, who has worked with France on various projects.

Using a modified version of a kind of spectral imaging technology, France and her team analyzed the first map to use the word “America” that is dated 1507, and also found four rare fingerprints on the Gettysburg Address that may belong to President Abraham Lincoln. An Army criminal investigation laboratory is analyzing the prints to determine if they do, in fact, belong to Lincoln.

“She’s distinct from other people in that not only does she interpret documents from the scientific perspective, but she is at the same time interpreting them as a scholar,” said Dianne van der Reyden, director of preservation at the Library of Congress.

Van der Reyden said France considers working on some the nation’s top treasures “a privilege,” and brings an enormous amount of energy and dedication to the task of uncovering new historic information and applying new techniques to preserve important documents.

France said she finds her work “very special and very humbling.”

“You have to know you’re not only protecting the original document, but preserving it for future generations,” she said.

Her many projects have included use of advanced spectral imaging to discover new details from historic maps, such as the L’Enfant Plan, the first to include a design of Washington, D.C. Though nearly illegible, France helped uncover names and landmarks that van der Reyden called “a huge breakthrough,” including the discovery that the White House was originally labeled the “President’s House.”

The imaging not only reveals hidden text and information, but has also been adapted to analyze watermarks. In addition, advanced processing of images can enhance text through a new tool that uses certain colors to expose pen and pencil strokes typically invisible to the unaided eye.

While she has worked on some of the America’s most notable and treasured artifacts, France just became a citizen in 2010.

“She brings a different perspective as a recent American citizen and I think there’s something about that—having that outside perspective and coming into a country and seeing these documents from a worldly perspective,” said Mike Toth, a consultant who has worked with her on preservation projects.

France said she feels a strong connection to the documents and the importance of preserving artifacts that illustrate “what made America free today.”

“It’s all very well that you can look at something as an image, but everyone wants to get to the original because everyone feels that connection,” she said. “Preservation is necessary to try to explain to your kids what this document means in terms of what they’re allowed to do today and how they got the rights they have.”