Geneticist, Lecturer and Writer Professor Turi King talks about her latest UK tour, ‘Family History with DNA Detective Professor Turi King’

Currently seen on the BBC’s DNA Family Secrets, Professor Turi King has played a significant role in the fields of forensics, history, genealogy and archaeology – her contribution to the identification of King Richard III a vital finding that has gone onto showcase the power of forensics, tying us ever closer to our personal lineages. Set to tour the UK with her latest live show Family History with DNA Detective Professor Turi King, Turi looks to delve deeper into her impressive decades long career, imparting the knowledge she’s gathered amongst the years. Ahead of the tour, which starts on 23rd September at the 1532 Performing Arts Centre – Turi tells us more about what to expect.

Hi Turi, your event Family History with DNA Detective Professor Turi King will tour the UK this September and October. How are you feeling ahead of the tour?

Very excited. I’ve been working in this area for over 20 years, I get to work on some really cool things. I’ve worked on the Richard III Project and early stuff around using DNA fingerprinting to look at people with the same surname, and whether they all related to one another through to doing DNA Family Secrets. I’ve worked on loads of really interesting projects, and it’s an area I’m quite passionate about, and I’m hoping that people will be able to learn tips and tricks as well as how they can use DNA when they’re doing their own family history.

Family History with DNA Detective Professor Turi King will see you uncover how DNA has revolutionised genealogy and forensics, reveal how our unique DNA identifies us and our families and discuss how you led the team who cracked one of the biggest forensic DNA cases in history – the identification of King Richard III. How have you approached creating the show?

I’ve actually been talking about this kind of thing for a really long time. When I first started my PhD over 20 years ago, scarily, it was on this subject. I started getting asked by members of the public to come and give talks to their society. I suppose I’ve had over 20 years of practice of doing this, I’d already been doing television series with Michael Wood and things like that. The Richard III Project really kicked it off. So I’ve given over 400 talks around the world now, I’ve given a talk at a congressional breakfast, I’ve opened science festivals, I talk at schools, all that kind of stuff and now doing DNA Family Secrets again, so I’m really used to explaining complex science in an easy way so people get it. I do training for people at the university and I say to them, “Think about it, you’re trying to explain your research to your mum or your auntie or your grandma or that kind of thing, how can you get people like that really interested in the work that you’ve been doing?” And frankly, DNA Family Secrets and Richard III makes it really easy!

You’re best known for co-presenting the BBC2 series DNA Family Secrets with Stacey Dooley – revealing lost heritage, tracking down missing relatives and detecting debilitating diseases before it’s too late. Currently in its second season, with the third due to air in autumn. What does your role involve within the show? How have you found the experience of working on the show?

Oh my gosh, it’s amazing! We get people come to us with questions. It might be that they’re adopted or they don’t know who their, or one of their parents is. What we do is we take their DNA and I lead on doing the work for that – tracing parents or half siblings. We’ve had some amazing cases where, for example, we had Matthew in series two. He came and he had been adopted, and he had grown up in foster care and he found his mum, but he’d always been told that his biological father was Jamaican. But he wasn’t quite sure if that was true, he wanted to know so he came to us and by looking at his DNA, I could say to him, look, you are not half Jamaican, your dad was not from Jamaica. He was from the Seychelles. His journey was this amazing mixture of East Africa, France, Britain, China and Indonesia. That’s all because of the history of the Seychelles – of it being colonised by the French. You also get your adventures and things, like people coming over and settling there. The matches that we were getting were to people who were on the Seychelles as well as distant family, but not enough to be able to work out who his biological father was. After we finished filming, before the television programme went out, somebody popped up on the databases and I was able to go okay, I think I’ve found your half sibling and he also doesn’t know who his biological father is. But it was amazing, they mentioned it in the final filming before the television programme went out to go look, we’ve found your half sibling who you never knew existed. Then the programme goes out and somebody contacts me and says “You know what?” He looks just like my cousin. My cousin’s passed away, but his sister is still alive. The sister was really sweet and took the DNA test and now they found out who their biological father was.

What’s really lovely is that Matthew and his half sibling have become really close. He’s been completely enveloped into this family now because they had no idea that they existed. So it’s these really amazing things that I get to do, I get to help people find family members and the longing that comes off of people when they come in, they sit down in front of me on TV, or something and I asked them, “What would you like to know?” and It’ll be things like “I don’t know who my dad is”, or “I was adopted”, you can feel the longing coming off of them, just how much it means to them to know this. It’s about identity, and you can’t get much heavier than that. But it is so deeply personal. I feel ridiculously privileged that I get to be the person on telly, who they come and they talk to and to lead on answering their question for them. It’s lovely because I get to work with Stacey Dooley who’s amazing and wonderful and really great to work with as well. One of the really nice things about the production team is that people will come and sit down in front of me and they watch, whatever, and they’re in tears. I’m in tears. The production team is in tears. We’ve got counsellors and social workers of all sorts because it is such a big deal, what we’re able to do. I really like the power of DNA. In this talk, I’ll be talking about all the stuff that goes on behind the scenes, and how people can do this for themselves because I get emails every single day from people who have a question, “How can I do this?”, I try and help them, I help people for free. Sometimes I take on cases when I have time to do it because it’s not my job, this isn’t what I do at the University of Leicester. People often think that it is but it’s really all in my spare time. But I love it. I love the power of DNA and what it can tell you and sometimes what it can’t tell you, I think that’s quite important too.

You specialise in the fields of Genetics, Archaeology, History, Forensics, Genetic Genealogy and Surnames. What drew you to pursue a career in these particular scientific fields further?

I grew up in Canada, and I came over here, and I’d already been doing archaeology. I’d done a couple of years at University, so then I came over here, and I’m working as a waitress at the museum in Oxford. I thought well, I better fetch my degree. If I go home, it’s two more years. If I stay here, it’s three years. I’ll apply to Cambridge on a bit of a whim, thinking if I get in, I’ll stay, if I don’t, I’ll go home. And I got it! I was doing archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge and then I was sitting in a lecture and it was about the Russian royal family being killed during the Bolshevik Revolution. So this is Tsar Nicholas and his wife and their five children, a doctor and servants, and during the Bolshevik Revolution, they’re murdered, and their bodies are hidden. In the 1990s, people found them, they found these remains, “Is it them?”, so they had to do all the archaeological work, and ostheological (looking at the bones), and then the genetics to go “Is this them?”. The way they did the DNA testing was using DNA fingerprinting and I had gone up to Leicester, which is where DNA fingerprinting was invented. I liked Jeffreys (Alec Jeffreys), and had him on my PHD panel so that was it. It was sitting in that lecture where I thought, “That’s the sort of thing that I want to do!” – I need to do genetics, so I ended up coming up to Leicester, Jeffreys was on my PhD panel, and the Richard III Project came along. So I ‘ve just been incredibly lucky and passionate about what I do, essentially, I guess, it’s how I got into it.

What have you learned/taken away from creating the event?

People have some of the most amazing family history stories, whenever I do events, and I do talks and I get to talk to people from the audience, there’s some amazing family stories out there. That’s what I really love about doing these talks and tours, is hearing from the audience, and hearing their stories and also trying to help if I can offer advice on what they could do.

What can audiences expect from the show?

So I’m hoping it’s going to be quite fun. I’ve got lots of live videos and stuff like that. So we’ll start off with forensics and DNA fingerprinting, a lot of people when they think DNA fingerprinting, think police and in first cases, it’s not about that. So “Where did it really start?”, it’s actually immigration cases. I talk with the very first story about how it was used, which, to this day, Alec Jeffreys says this is the case he is most proud of now, even after all of these years of DNA fingerprinting, through to what it was used for with forensics and through to how that was applied to surnames and how you can tell whether people with the same surnames as you are related to you. Then into the Richard the III Project, and then into DNA Family Secrets –  there’s going to be gossipy, behind the scenes type of stuff. Hopefully some funny bits, but also some clips from the television series if they haven’t seen it. And oh my goodness, I feel like I need to hand out tissues at the beginning of the second half because there’s going to be some really moving stories and then into how we’re now using exactly what we do for DNA Family Secrets to catch criminals.

What would you like for audiences to take away from the show?

Little things that they can use if they want to look at their family history and their ancestry, and particularly, if they’ve been a bit like “I have no idea about this DNA stuff”. They can learn a bit more about that and also be for people who’ve already done stuff – hopefully, they can learn a little bit more about how they can apply that to their history.

Interview by Lucy Basaba.

Family History with DNA Detective Professor Turi King starts off at 1532 Performing Arts Centre Saturday 23rd September 2023. To find out more about the event, visit here…

Tour Schedule


23 September​- Bristol, 1532

28 September​ – Ilkey, Kings Hall


1 October​​ – Oxford, Sheldonian Theatre

2 October​​ – Stafford, Gatehouse

3 October​​ – Frome, Cheese and Grain

8 October​​ – London Richmond Theatre

11 October​​ – Shewsbury, Severn Theatre

14 October​​ – Monmouth, Blake Theatre

15 October ​​- Exeter, Northcott

17 October​​ – Cheltenham, Town Hall

22 October​​ – Worcester, Huntingdon Hall

23 October​​ – Aylesbury, The Waterside

24 October​​ – Loughborough, Town Hall

30 October​​ – Royal Spa Centre, Leamington Spa

Written by Theatrefullstop