Staring death in the face

Forensics expert Professor Sue Black tells Tom Ireland about her fascination with flesh – and how science kept her sane amid the horrors of a war zone

The Biologist 62(6) p24-27

Professor Sue Black's interest in anatomy started at just 14 while working in her local butcher's shop. She is now one of the world's leading forensic anthropologists, having investigated the scenes of war crimes around the world.

In 2001, the Inverness born scientist was awarded an OBE for her work examining the remains of victims of atrocities in Kosovo. She has since helped to develop new forensic techniques for matching crime suspects to hands or arms glimpsed in photos or videos.

Currently professor of anatomy and forensic anthropology at the University of Dundee, Black has overseen a £2m upgrade of her department's mortuary, enabling students to use new embalming techniques to produce eerily lifelike cadavers. The state of the art mortuary was part funded by a collection of crime writers who have relied on Black's advice in the past.

Did working in a butcher's inspire or help you to pursue a career in anatomy?

I suppose it's an odd way for a teenager to start in this career, but it's also fairly logical. I initially worked in a farm's vegetable shop and I hated that, so I asked if I could work in the butcher's and just loved it. There was a logic to it. When you remove meat from the shoulder area of a cow, for example, it's the same pattern every time. You know where to make the cuts and you know where the neurovascular bundle's going to be.

I don't think as a teenager I really understood what I was seeing. At that age, I think a lot of information almost seeps into your mind without intention, and so when you start to look at it in the human you draw on an experience you didn't realise was embedded in you.

My real inspiration was my biology teacher, Dr Fraser – he was just the loveliest man on the planet. None of my family had been to university, so it wasn't a natural route for me. I did work experience as a medical lab technician and thought that was what I wanted to do. However, Dr Fraser said: "No, you're going to university."

I recently went back to my old school to give a talk, and he had been dragged out of retirement and was in the audience. He had followed my career and when someone asked, "Why do you do what you do?" I had that wonderful moment when I was able to say: "It's because of him." We now keep in touch and send each other Christmas cards.

Do you remember the first time you worked with human bodies?

I don't think students have any idea what that 'day one' of anatomy really means. The dissection room in Aberdeen was Victorian in many ways, with parquet floors, a glass ceiling and 40 or 50 glass-top tables, each of which had a body wrapped in a white sheet on it. It was all you could see and it was a really scary and pivotal moment.

Anatomy assaults all the senses. Every anatomy department has its own smell – you could blindfold me and put me back in there and I'd know where I was. You walk in and see the room, hear the echoes, smell the formalin, and you know that the next sense you'll be using will be touch. The next thing you have to do is peel that white sheet back and cut into human skin. Nobody remains unaffected by that.

When you think about the fact those deceased people were alive six months before, and they had decided they were going to leave their body so that you could learn, that's an incredibly sobering moment. It's a huge weight of responsibility – so anatomy day one is a complete and utter assault course for every sense and emotion you have.

Presumably, the way you reacted on day one told you that you could be quite good at this.

Every time I open up a body, I am just amazed at what lies underneath there. And so from that point on I was hooked – completely and utterly hooked. I expect some view it in a more dispassionate way, but for me, the entire concept – body donation and body dissection – is just an enormous social event.

When did your interest turn from anatomy to forensics?

During my PhD, my supervisor was asked to look at a forensic case so that was my first move into that area. I thought: "I'm okay looking at fresh meat in a butcher's shop, and okay looking at preserved human material in anatomy, but how am I going to cope with fresh human material in a mortuary?" There was again that first moment and I had no problem with it at all. I became aware I could transfer myself from the anatomy environment into the mortuary environment.

Flying out to work in Kosovo during the war there must have been another very daunting step in your career.

It was huge – and I wasn't expecting it. Peter Vanezis, then professor of forensic medicine at Glasgow, had been called out there by the UN when the Serb troops had retreated. He phoned me and, in his inimitable style, he asked: "What are you doing Saturday?"

I thought he was back and inviting me for dinner, so I said I wasn't doing anything. He said "great" and that he needed me in Kosovo and was putting me on a flight. I didn't know anything about it – who I was going to meet, where I would be staying, how long I'd be out there. It was a huge leap of faith.

Tell us a little about the conditions you had to work in during your time there.

It's about as far as you can get from the conditions in a lab. At the first scene we came to, 44 men had been herded into two rooms of an outhouse and sprayed with gunfire from the door. Then the place had been torched.

So the bodies were badly decomposed, burnt, and the roof had fallen in. Finally, the fleeing refugees had left their dogs behind, which had been eating the remains. That's your crime scene.

Not only was there no lab, there was no running water and just a generator for electricity. There was a booby trap device left for us and possibly still snipers on the hillside who would quite like to take us out. It was 38 degrees every day and there was no shelter.

GrossKosovoBlack in Kosovo, 1999

Where do you even start? What equipment did you have available?

As part of an international team working on a criminal tribunal, you are expected to work to international standards no matter what the conditions. All the photos and samples you take and the measurements you make have to be of the same standard as if you were in a mortuary at home – or as close as you can get.

So the first thing you have to do is get down on your hands and knees at the entrance of one of those rooms, and identify where you think the first body is. Our mortuary table was two very long planks of wood balanced on the back of a trailer and the back of a well.

Did your objectivity as a scientist in some ways protect you from the full horror of what had been committed?

It's an incredibly powerful self-protection shield, yes. We're there to do a specific job and be impartial scientists, which means you have to collect and report on evidence objectively, and you cannot take sides – those are the rules of science. If you let emotion and personal involvement in, you've strayed from the rules of being a scientist, and that's when you get into trouble. Your training as a scientist is your best friend.

How did your career change after Kosovo?

In 2003, Dundee asked me to run the anatomy department. Initially, I didn't really want to go back to academia: I was having too much fun jumping in and out of Chinook helicopters. However, they said I could do what I want with the department. That flexibility was too good to turn down.

We've made some enormous changes, which has been very rewarding. The opportunity to teach and have a research directive is what keeps me going in the afternoons. Being able to talk about nothing but research in a meeting is just brilliant.

Is it true that a collective of crime writers helped fund your new mortuary?

Yes. I needed a new mortuary to be able to pioneer an embalming method in the UK called the Thiel approach, which makes the bodies very soft, flexible and lifelike for practising surgery. The university said I needed to raise half of the £2m cost myself. How do you persuade anyone to give you money for a mortuary? You can't rattle a bucket outside the shops.

So I decided it was time to ask for some payback from the crime writers who had used me and the department for advice over the last 30 years. We said we would name our mortuary after whichever writer raised the most money, and they all went into competition.

They just took off with it and their generosity of spirit was amazing. They auctioned off characters so you could have yourself – or your mother in law – appear in their next book. We even produced The Killer Cookbook, which was shortlisted for an award. We raised enough cash and it was so close that we ended up with both the Stuart MacBride Dissecting Room and the Val McDermid Mortuary.

What have been the most significant advances in your field during your career?

We forget that DNA was only introduced into the forensic field relatively recently in the 1980s. I see a very big difference between then and now – we now have such an incredible dependence on DNA that it almost supersedes all of the other forensic sciences. The National Academy of Sciences found that most of the forensic sciences are not fit for purpose – a huge statement to make – and work I did with the Royal Society suggests the evidence supports that view.

What are some of the newer techniques in forensics that are not so well known?

We had a case where someone who was being abused left their Skype camera on, and at night the camera switches to infrared mode. This light makes your vein patterns stand out like black tram lines. We had some images of a hand and a forearm coming into view of the camera in the middle of the night and the police force had no idea what to do with it.

So they asked the anatomists here to do some analysis and we set about making a comparison. If you look at the back of both your hands or wrists, the pattern on each will be very different – there is a huge amount of variation possible. We went to court, having never gone to court with anything like this before. That was a first in the UK.

What is the field of forensic anthropology like?

There was a real blossoming of courses in the late 1990s and early 2000s because universities realised if you stick that sexy F word, forensics, on the front of anything, then you get students' bottoms on seats. Many of those courses eventually fell away either because the teaching wasn't up to standard or students realised there wouldn't be a job at the end of it. However interesting it might be, we don't need 5,000 new forensic scientists a year.

The market has started to find equilibrium: there are fewer undergraduate courses and an increase in more niche postgraduate courses. There is not really any such thing as forensic science: it's really about the application of a solid science to problems associated with court.

Is 'gallows humour' important to people in your line of work?

There has to be gallows humour, but it is never disrespectful to the dead. At the crime scene in Kosovo I mentioned earlier, we had SO13, the anti-terrorist police force, as our security. They told me that if I found anything and I didn't know what it was, to just walk out and come and get them.

I saw some very shiny metal and I made the call. So in they went, in their full protective gear, and came back out half an hour later, faces grave. One of them said: "You will never know how lucky you were," and held up a dessert spoon. And from then on every time I sat down for a meal, there'd be 12 spoons with my soup, or my kitbag would be full of nothing but spoons.

We also had a young radiographer, and his colleagues were very naughty. They taped a bullet casing to the bottom of his table, so whatever he x-rayed seemed to have a bullet in it. He just couldn't understand it.

What do you want to happen to your body when you die?

That's very easy. I have an organ donor card and they can take anything they want. What I am likely to do is put something in my will so that once I'm dissected I'll have my skeleton recovered and articulated and hung in my dissecting room so I can carry on teaching long after I'm dead.

Professor Sue Black is Professor of Anatomy and Forensic Anthropology at the University of Dundee.
Between 1992 and 2003 she worked for the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the United Nations to help identify victims and perpetrators of various conflicts.

The Thiel technique - Bringing anatomy to life

Professor Black was the first anatomist in the UK to use the Thiel technique, an Austrian embalming method that produces near life-like cadavers. Anatomist Walter Thiel began working on an alternative to preserving bodies in formaldehyde in the 1960s, after seeing how a butcher preserved hams.Formaldehyde causes cadavers to stiffen and flake, has a pungent smell, and individual tissues often lose their distinctive colours.

By the 1990s, Thiel had perfected a new preserving solution which used various salts and less formaldehyde.

Black's lab now only uses Thiel technique cadavers. Bodies must be injected and soaked in the fluid for over a year, and drained prior to use.

The muscle and skin remains flexible, allowing limbs to be moved. The texture and colour of organs and vasculature are preserved, and tissue responds to a surgeon's scalpel in the same way as it does in a living body.

It is hoped that the Thiel technique can help improve surgical skills and aid the adoption of new surgical techniques.