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Medical detectives: pioneering forensic pathologists


In spite of the current obsession of television producers portraying forensic pathologists as willowy blondes, aged twenty-five, this macabre occupation was dominated during the last century by a handful of mostly middle-aged or elderly men of all shapes and sizes, some of whom became ‘household names’. 

Professor Bernard Knight CBE 

The development of forensic medicine in Britain is told through the lives of the five great pathologists who dominated the scene throughout most of the twentieth century. Spanning seventy years, their careers and achievements marked major milestones in the development of legal medicine, their work and innovation laying the foundations for modern crime scene investigation (CSI). Sir Bernard Spilsbury, Sir Sydney Smith and Professors John Glaister, Francis Camps and Keith Simpson were the original expert witnesses. Between them, they performed over 200,000 post-mortems during their professional careers, establishing crucial elements of murder investigation such as time, place and cause of death. This forensic quintet featured in many of the notable murder trials of their time, making ground-breaking discoveries in the process.

The five pathologists, each with their unique talents, represented a golden age of forensic development. Their careers overlapped to a considerable extent and there were strains of rivalry in their relationships at times. This was, perhaps, inevitable in the adversarial system employed in British courts which meant that experts were sometimes cast as opponents in the courtroom. As professionals, they did not always agree on the interpretation of evidence. Despite their differences, they elevated the gritty, not to say, gruesome, business of examining the dead to a multi-faceted profession calling on every available scientific resource and discipline. Crime scene investigation as it is practised today owes a great deal to these pioneers for their questing spirit and innovative genius.

Sir Bernard Spilsbury – ‘The Coming Man’

Sir Bernard Spilsbury was an iconic figure who put forensic pathology on the map with his involvement in the Crippen case. Headlines such as, ‘Spilsbury called in’, turned an essentially shy man into a celebrity. He was in essence a loner; an interpreter who exemplified the role of the expert witness. Sure of himself, certain of the facts and not requiring a second opinion, he stood tall in the witness box. In an age when capital punishment was still in use, his courtroom testimony made him an arbiter of life and death. A roll call of his cases reads like a catalogue of famous British murders. His conclusions, though, were often controversial and contested and remain so to the present day. He was the epitome of the expert; aloof, assured and respected.

Sir Sydney Smith – ‘The Patriarch’

His contemporary, Sir Sydney Smith, by contrast, was an innovator, a clubbable man who worked on a broad canvas and drew people towards him. Born in New Zealand, he pursued his training in Scotland, the spiritual home of forensic medicine. He honed his skills in Egypt, where he worked during the inter-war years, and pioneered the development of forensic ballistics. He returned to Edinburgh to concentrate on teaching and helped to put forensic studies onto a sound academic basis.

John Glaister – ‘The Professor’

John Glaister also prospered in the Scottish tradition and played a major role in furthering his nation’s pre-eminent position in forensic medicine. He was a professor for thirty years at Glasgow University where he succeeded his father. His particular contribution was to apply scientific methods to the examination of trace evidence gathered at crime scenes. His work on the identification of hair was a significant breakthrough and, like Smith, he was willing to share knowledge and to call for specialist help when it was needed. This was evident in the Ruxton case when he pioneered photo-imposition as an identification technique.

Francis Camps – ‘The Mentor’

Francis Camps was an organiser rather than an innovator. He had a vision of coordinating the emerging skills of the broader medico-legal profession and, to that end, created a world-class forensic department at London University. He had his share of important crime cases but was at his best when managing people and resources to advance the knowledge and professional status of forensic work. He was a founding member of the British Academy of Forensic Sciences which succeeded in bringing science, medicine and the law together to serve the ends of justice. Camps also reached out to the USA to add an international element to what he viewed as best practice.

Keith Simpson – ‘The Teacher’

Keith Simpson combined a number of talents as teacher and practitioner. He was also an important innovator, breaking new ground in the understanding of factors which determined time of death and helping to put forensic dentistry on the map as a means of establishing identity. Like his contemporaries, he was involved in many headline murder cases, Heath, Haigh and Christie being prominent among them. He was a highly effective communicator, noted for his succinct delivery of evidence in court, in addition to his lecturing and writing activities. Ripper or, of course, John Straffen himself during his brief but not uneventful stay in Broadmoor. 

By Robin Odell

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