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We examined six historical specimens of the endangered North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) using DNA isolated from documented baleen plates from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Sequences from the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) control region from these samples were compared with those from a near-exhaustive survey (269 of approximately 320 individuals) of the remaining right whales in the western North Atlantic Ocean. Our results suggest that there has been only relatively modest change in maternal lineage diversity over the past century in the North Atlantic right whale population. Any significant reduction in genetic variation in the species most likely occurred prior to the late nineteenth century. One historical specimen was from the last documented female capable of propagating one of the maternal lineages in the population today; no females in the existing population have been found to carry this mtDNA haplotype. Analysis of the only specimens from the eastern North Atlantic right whale population ever to be examined revealed that eastern and western North Atlantic right whales may not have been genetically differentiated populations. Loss of gene diversity experienced by North Atlantic right whales over the last century has been modest, and the six decades of protection have been successful in maintaining much of the maternal lineage diversity that was present in the late nineteenth century.