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Anatomy of the 'Harper Fragment'

by Joseph N. Riley PhD

On November 23, 1963, William Allen Harper found a piece of John Kennedy's skull in Dealey Plaza. This piece of bone became known as the "Harper fragment" and has been a point of contention for many years. The controversy is: from what part of the president's skull did the fragment originate? In technical jargon, the debate centers around whether the fragment is occipital bone or parietal -- two different parts of the skull. The significance of this technical distinction is considerable: if the fragment is occipital bone, the autopsy X-rays of John Kennedy's skull cannot be authentic since the X-rays do not show sufficient bone loss in the occipital area. Conversely, if the fragment is parietal bone, it is consistent with the X-rays being authentic. The forensics panel of the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) accepted the Harper fragment as being parietal bone. Several authors, including David Lifton [1] and Harrison E. Livingstone [2] have cited evidence that the fragment is occipital bone, based largely on the opinions of several doctors in Dallas who examined the piece of bone after it was discovered. The purpose of this article is to examine the anatomy of the Harper fragment and attempt to resolve this conflict.


The story of the discovery of the Harper fragment is intriguing and somewhat complex, but beyond the scope of this paper. The HSCA provides a brief summary:
(105) On the day after the assassination, at about 5:30 P.M., William Allen Harper, a student at Texas Christian University, was taking photographs of the Dealey Plaza area when he discovered a piece of bone near the scene of the assassination. Harper informed the FBI that he took the bone to his uncle, Dr. Jack C. Harper, and that they both went to Dr. A.B. Cairns, chief of pathology at Methodist Hospital, Dallas, Texas. Dr. Cairns believed the bone to be a piece of human skull. William Harper said he then gave the specimen to Special Agent Anderson of the FBI on November 25. [3]

This summary is accurate, but incom-plete and potentially misleading. Dr. Cairns was more specific in his identification of the bone fragment; he identified the fragment as probably occipital bone [4]. The House Committee characterized the fragment as parietal bone based largely on statements by Dr.J. Lawrence Angel, Curator of Physical Anthropology for the Smithsonian Institution. [5]

Since the debate over the origin of the fragment has important implications for the authenticity of the medical evidence, the first issue should be whether the photographs Dr. Cairns took of the specimen are the same as the photographs examined by the HSCA. Researcher/archivist Mary Ferrell provided the author with copies of the photographs made by Dr. Cairns (one showing the outer surface of the fragment; the other showing the inner surface); one of these photos is reproduced in Figure 1 (sorry reader, the Figures are not available) and compared to the photograph examined by the HSCA. Even at low magnification, there is no doubt that the photographs depict the same fragment.

The second issue, of course, is whether the fragment is occipital or parietal bone. Answering this question is relatively easy to a neuroanatomist, but involves highly technical arguments and terms.


Dr. J. Lawrence Angel described the fragment in a memorandum addressed to the HSCA:
"The Harper fragment photographs show it as a roughly trapezoidal piece, 7 centimeters by 5.5 centimeters in size, coming mainly from the upper middle third of the right parietal bone. Near its short upper edge vascular foramina on the inside and a faint irregular line on the outside indicate sagital structure. Its posterior inferior pointed edge appears to fit the crack in the posterior section of the right parietal [bone] and its slightly wavy lower border can fit the upper edge of the loose lower section of right parietal[bone]. Its upper short border, on the left of the midline near vertex, may meet the left margin of the gap. behind it there appears to be a large gap and in front a narrow one.[6]

Dr. Angel's placement of the Harper fragment is shown in Figure 2, which also provides a rough guide for the distinction between parietal and occipital regions of the skull.

The anatomical features of the Harper fragment demonstrate conclusively that it cannot be occipital bone. Some of the anatomical features that establish this are described below; these should be compared to Figure 2 which illustrates parietal and occipital features and illustrates the location of some features on the fragment.

Vascular Grooves

The inner surface of the skull is marked in places by vascular grooves, i.e., small depressions where blood vessels are located in vivo. In the case of parietal bone, vascular grooves are mainly from branches of the middle meningeal. No such pattern exists for occipital bone; it has an entirely different type of interior surface which will be described below. The photograph of the interior surface of the Harper fragment (HSCA Fig. 27; see Figure 1A and compare to Figure 1C) shows a pattern of vascular grooving entirely consistent with it being parietal bone and entirely inconsistent with it being occipital bone.

In contrast to parietal bone, occipital bone does not show a pattern of vascular grooving. it does have internal markings, including deep sulci ("grooves") that are much larger than vascular grooves; these are grooves for the transverse sinus and superior sagital sinus. No such deep grooves are visible in the photographs of the Harper fragment.

Additional Features

Parietal bone is characterized by a relatively smooth (excluding vascular grooves) inner surface, mild curvature, and relatively uniform thickness. In contrast, occipital bone is characterized by major variations on its internal surface (i.e., many different bumps and grooves from various things), much greater curvature and substantial variation in thickness (compare drawings of internal aspects of parietal and occipital bone in Figure 1). Simply put, occipital bone doesn't look like the fragment in Figure 1, but parital bone does. There are a number of other reasons why the Harper fragment is parietal. For example, parietal foramina (vascular perforations of a type that occur only in parietal bone) visible in the photograph establish the location and orientation of the fragment. It is worth mentioning that if the Harper fragment were indeed lower occipital bone, death would have been virtually instantaneous. The lower portion of the occipital bone forms the foramen magnum (the space through which the forebrain connects to the spinal cord); it is rather inconceivable that John Kennedy would have shown any vital signs (at Parkland) at all following explosive destruction of this area.

The information reported here establishes that the Harper fragment is parietal bone, not occipital. However, this fact should not be over-interpreted. This conclusion supports the authenticity of this aspect of the medical evidence, but does not prove it. More importantly, the origin of the fragment as parietal bone does not, in any way, support the conclusion that Kennedy was struck in the head by one and only one bullet. The conclusion simply clarifies the remaining issues in evaluating the medical evidence.

The controversy over President Kennedy's autopsy has generated many unresolved questions about the medical evidence. However, the available evidence is sufficient to determine the origin of the Harper fragment based on the anatomical features inherent in the fragment. These anatomical features no doubt seem obscure to the general reader, but they are definitive to a neuroanatomist. All of these anatomical features of the Harper fragment are consistent with it being parietal and inconsistent with it being occipital. Thus, there should be no reasonable scientific doubt that the Harper fragment is, indeed, parietal bone.

The author thanks Mary Ferrell for sharing the photographs and for her tireless dedication and inspiration.


1. Lifton, David S.. Best Evidence. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1988.
2. Livingstone, Harrison E., Killing Kennedy. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1995
3. 7 HSCA 25
4. HSCA interview with Drs. Harper and Cairns, August 17, 1977 as quoted in ref.2
5. 7 HSCA 228-230. Memorandum of J. Lawrence Angel, addressed to "JFK Skull Review Committee" of the Forensic pathology panel, dated October 24, 1977.
6. 7 HSCA 229.

FIGURE LEGENDS [Sorry, the Figures are not available for this Web version.]

Figure 1. The Harper fragment. A. photograph as published by the HSCA.
B. Copy of photograph of Harper fragment made by Dr. A. B. Cairns. C. Comparison of some anatomical features of A and B. Parietal foramina and vascular grooves are visible in both photographs and the contours of the fragments are identical.

Figure 2. Location of the Harper fragment. The location of parietal and occipital regions is shown on the drawing of John F. Kennedy's skull made by the HSCA. Dr. Angel's placement of the fragment is illustrated in the upper right figure with a magnified view shown just below his drawing. Gross anatomical features of the internal aspects of occipital and parietal bone are illustrated in the lower portion of the figure (adapted from GREY'S ANATOMY, 35th British edition, edited by R. Warwick and P.L. Williams. Philadelphia, PA: W.B. Saunders, 1973).

Used by permission of the author. All rights reserved. JFK/DPQ PO Box 174 Hillsdale, NJ 07642

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