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In Memoriam – Leo William Little

Last week the genetic genealogy community lost one of its treasured members, Leo W. Little.

Leo’s passing was announced on the GENEALOGY-DNA mailing list on Sunday evening. Since then, many members of that mailing list, the ISOGG Yahoo Group, and the DNA- ANTHROGENEALOGY Yahoo Group have expressed their sympathy to Leo’s family and expressed their admiration for his work and contributions to the field of genetic genealogy.

Leo was the administrator of at least two DNA Projects, including the null439 DNA Project, and the Little DNA Project. The null439 group was begun by Leo after he helped characterize the “Little SNP” in 2002, a SNP that is also called “L1″ or “S26″. In 2005 Leo posted an email to the GENEALOGY-DNA that explained the discovery of the SNP, which defines the R1b1b2a1c Haplogroup in the new 2008 ISOGG Y-DNA Haplogroup Tree (previously known as R1b1c9a). The L1 SNP causes the primers used by Family Tree DNA to analyze Y-STR repeats at DYS439 to fail to anneal, and thus no result is recorded for that locus (i.e., it is “null”). The result is recorded as a default 12 with a blue asterisk. Here is Leo’s description from the null439 page:

“SNPs are passed down from father to son, and all males with a null439 SNP descend from a common ancestor who lived within the last 5000 years. Most null439 males with known origins have roots in England or Germany. The null439 SNP is also called “L1” or “S26“. L1/S26 is carried by about a half of one percent of R1b males. All males with L1/S26 also have the SNP “S21” (also known as “U106“) which defines the R1b1b2g subgroup (formerly R1b1c9).”

The null439 Project currently has at least 83 members, including myself. In June 2006 my Y-DNA analysis revealed that I have the L1 SNP and thus had no result at DYS439. When I joined the null439 project at FTDNA, Leo promptly emailed me and welcomed me to the group.

Other Contributions

But the S26 SNP and the null429 group are just a few of Leo’s contributions to the field. Other work includes his incredibly useful “Eclectic Genetic Genealogy Information” page, or a number of articles at the Little DNA Project (including this one entitled “Tracing the Borders Littles through DNA Testing“). Indeed, a search of the GENEALOGY-DNA archives reveals at least 150 messages posted by Leo’s email address (lwlittle@yahoo.com), and a search of his name reveals many more messages in which he was mentioned. Leo was a consultant for the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation, a member of the following organizations: the Association of Professional Genealogists, the International Society of Genetic Genealogy, and the Austin Genealogical Society. In July 2005, Leo’s work was highlighted in an article from Time magazine entitled “Can DNA Reveal Your Roots?“:

“One of the less controversial aspects of genetic genealogy is its ability to help people fill in gaps in their family tree. Leo Little, a retired engineer in Austin, Texas, had used historical records to trace his lineage back to his great-great-grandfather Thomas Little, who was born in Alabama in 1816. Then, he says, “I hit a brick wall. I knew my Littles were from the South, but there were a lot of Littles from the South, and it was impossible to sort out.” After he took a DNA test from Family Tree DNA, he began leading one of the company’s 1,900 surname projects, in this case checking test results on Littles. As a result, he has identified three distant cousins. By pooling their family records, the cousins have been able to trace their roots all the way back to 1680.”

Since Leo’s passing was so unexpected, the family is still dealing with the shock. On Monday, Terry Barton posted to the ISOGG Yahoo Group that the family had been contacted, and that Mrs. Little had requested that there be “no phone calls, no emails, no cards, no contact of any kind.” She did mention the possibility of a memorial fund in the future. Additionally, Mrs. Little indicated that she would try to respond to Leo’s emails at some point.

If you would like to leave a comment below, I will compile them and send them in letter to Mrs. Little when she is ready to receive mail. In addition, this post will be available indefinitely as a memorial to Leo Little. Thank you to Katherine Hope Borges for her assistance in completing this post.

UPDATE From Katherine (May 27 2008):

Leo was heavily involved in his church history project and donations may be made in his name to (with thanks to Derrell and Terry for sharing this info):

Highland Park Baptist Church
5206 Balcones Drive
Austin TX 78731

In DNA Fund, we will have fund designated for a “Leo Little Memorial Scholarship”, but since the 501(c)(3) is not yet in effect, contributions are not tax-deductible. However, contributions may be sent to DNA Fund’s General Fund at Family Tree DNA and will be designated for null research.

Blaine Bettinger

Intellectual property attorney, genealogist, and author of The Genetic Genealogist since 2007

17 Comments

  1. Leo was a kind, gentle, and brilliant man…he was my mentor on nulls and helped me with other things as well. I plan to pay tribute to him by offering a research scholarship in his name. My deepest sympathies and condolences to his family!

  2. Leo very generously was interested to develop my education in Genetics, even though I am living in the UK. I have saved 24 of his emails where he patiently answered my questions, over a three-month period. A nice guy.

  3. Thanks for a life shared. Leo contacted me in regard to Null 439 and then continued sharing his information to help me with the Little clan. I hope I have learned to be as sharing with my life and knowledge as he was.

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  5. Several years ago Leo was very helpful in filling in info regarding my grandmother Georgia Lela Little. We shared some delightful tidbits on the history of the Little families in the south and our commom genetic bond. I am so saddened to hear of his passing, he was so helpful, so generous with his knowledge of the family past. My heartfelt prayers go to his family and as I have plans to visit Texas next year I do hope to personally convey those wishes to his loved ones. God Bless the Little family. Kathie Williams Pitman

  6. Mrs. Little,
    Please know my thoughts and prayers are with you and your family. I lost my husband just recently in December 2007. I am still dealing with the grief. I know there are no words anyone can say that will help at a time like this.
    Your husband helped us all, and we will miss him.
    Susan

  7. I too was an early null at DYS439 and worked with Leo and Neal Fox for several years in developing the null439 group as an entity. Leo was a great guy to work with, always responsive and very knowledgeable. He will be sorely missed. My sympathy goes to his family.

  8. I join the chorus of tributes to Leo Little. Genetic Genealogy has lost a dedicated leader and researcher and fine human being.

    He was always a gentleman, always willing to help or share, and always gave me his attention when I asked … Leo Little was one of the wonderful folks who have made the Genetic Genealogy community special. I will miss Leo. My condolences to his family.

    Terry Barton

  9. Leo and I worked together for years on our Little lines and at first we thought we might be related to my Georgia Little’s from my grandmother’s side of the family but in 2003, I had my Dad, Dorman Little’s DNA tested and Leo had also had his tested and it turned out that he and my Dad were a match and so we discovered that we were cousins after all but on my Kentucky Little side from my grandfather’s Little’s. As a result of this and others who also matched with Leo and Daddy, we were able due to a lot of excellent research on Leo’s part to get our family back to our first Little to come to America. That would not have happened if it had not been for Leo. He was always so helpful and helped me on several other family lines with DNA as well. I am in shock and have such deep sadness over his passing. I was not ready for this and I know that nobody who knew and loved him was ready for his passing. He was such a good example to all of us as a genealogist and as a wonderful caring human being. He will be greatly missed by us all. My heart felt sympathy goes to his family who I know he loved so deeply.
    Leo’s cousin,
    Jane Little McEndree

  10. I asked a question on a genealogical site and Leo answered, which is how i first got to know him. He was greatly interested in us Border Littles and the origins of the Little name. I was encouraged to submit a sample to the Little DNA Project. I did and i helped him as i could with small pieces of Border history. I will miss having his knowledge at the end of an email. The last emails i sent him were scans of UK branch of The Clan Little Society half-yearly publication. In it a member wrote of his search taking his roots back to Scotland’s King Robert of 1000 years back. Leo would have been a keen reader of the article. I truly hope that the Little DNA project continues and in the hands of someone as passionate about the subject.

  11. This is Margot, Leo’s wife. At this time I would welcome e-mails, and phone calls. After reading the obituary and the comments I am amazed to find out just how great is your regard for him. He was always a simple and unassuming person, not prone to talking about his accomplishments. Thank you all of you for informing me of a side to Leo that I did not know too well.

  12. Where is my buddy! It is with great sadness that I have found out about Leo’s passing. I can’t imagine not having Leo out there scouring the genealogy boards at genforumn and ancestry, looking out for the Little family clans.

    Whatever Leo posted, I would usually read, even if it was not related to my direct line. I knew it was going to be a great story.

    I know this was only a small part of what Leo was involved in, but I feel it must have been one of his true loves.

    Where ever you are at buddy, you made a difference!

    Miss Ya.

  13. I, too, have mourned the loss of Leo. We exchanged a few emails a few years ago in regards to my Isaac Little born in Ashe County, NC in 1800. As several of the links in Leo’s posts are no longer available, I wonder if anyone has taken the reins in the search for our Littles’ origins. I would love to be apprised of the situation, as I still hope to find out more about our past. Many thanks in advance to anyone who can offer suggestions!

    Chrissie Anderson Peters

  14. Leo helped me a lot on a genealogy forum, especially as our two families are connected in the 1700’s in the Danville, Virginia area at that time.

    We miss him a lot on the forum. His research was prolific and impeccable!
    And … he was a very hospitable Man, very nice and patient.

    Lance T. Fallin (descendant of Redmond Fallin who was a neighbor of the Littles and kin by marriages twixt the two families. Friends then, friends now).

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