A Body of Knowledge

AcademiaNet interview with Sue Black, Professor of Anatomy and Forensic Anthropology

22.7.2015 | A childhood job in a butcher's shop led Professor Sue Black to the mortuary and a career identifying human bodies – dead and living – in war zones and for criminal cases.
AcademiaNet: Your field of research is forensic anthropology, which is the analysis of human remains for medicolegal purposes. How did you become interested in this potentially gruesome discipline?

Prof. Sue Black
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Prof. Sue Black
Prof. Sue Black: My very first job when I was 12 years old was in a butcher's shop. So very early on I became comfortable dealing with blood, bone, muscle, flesh, offal and such things. Later I went to university to study biology, but I hadn't a clue where that was going to go. In my third year I chose to do anatomy, where you dissect the human body from the top of the head to the bottom of the toes. I found that year just so utterly fascinating, to know not only what's on the outside of the human but what's on the inside.

My first exposure to forensic investigation was when a case came along that my supervisor at the time was looking at. You never quite know how you're going to react to your first forensic case, but I found that it just fascinated me. It seemed a very natural progression from a butcher's shop into an anatomy department dissecting room to a mortuary assisting the police.

After your postgraduate studies, you spent some time as a lecturer in human anatomy before taking up work identifying victims and perpetrators of conflicts for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and United Nations. What made you transition from academia to fieldwork?

In some respects, it was simply because of a natural break in my academic career. Around that time I moved away from London back up to Scotland and took some time out to try to finish writing a very large textbook. And when something happens overseas, people don't ask whether you can go out there in six months, they want to know whether you can go out on Friday. While I was writing the book, and didn't have the full time academic demands on me, the cases started coming along.

One of your most notable projects during this time, for which you have been awarded an Order of the British Empire, was leading forensic anthropology in Kosovo after the Yugoslav wars. What role did you play in Kosovo?

I headed out to Kosovo not really knowing what to expect or how long I would be out there for. The British forensic team was the first team to go out to Kosovo after the troops had retreated, so we were very much on the periphery of what was still a war zone. We had huge military protection, there were still snipers in the area.

Although there was one unadulterated crime scene that we had to investigate, our main job in the early stages was to record as much information as possible to support any possible war crime cases. We were required to determine what we thought happened at an indictment site, and if what we thought had happened matched with what witnesses said happened, that would act as very strong evidence to support a war crimes case against someone like Milošević or Karadžić.
Prof. Sue Black was Head of Profession
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(© David Gross)

Prof. Sue Black was Head of Profession | for the British mission in Kosovo from 1999 to 2000, where this picture was taken. She has also provided anthropological services for war crime investigations in Kosovo, Grenada, Sierra Leone, Iraq, and in Thailand following the 2004 tsunami.

You mentioned about being exposed to snipers in Kosovo. Your fieldwork has also taken you to Sierra Leone and Iraq. Has your work ever felt dangerous?

When I was in Iraq, it was still very unstable. The military quarters were actually quite safe, but it was quite nerve-wrecking when we had to venture out to the crime scenes. When we were in Sierra Leone, there was very high security because the rebel forces desperately wanted to get a hold of hostages. It would have been great if they could have got British hostages, because the British troops were stopping the rebels getting into Freetown. And there's so much more psychological damage that you can do to a person and a country if your hostage is female rather than male.

So you don't ever take your security lightly, and you have to really trust the people who are around you. But it's great fun.

In 2005 you were appointed Professor of Anatomy and Forensic Anthropology at the University of Dundee, where you now head up the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification. What's an average week like for you at the centre?

Oh I haven't got one! When you're an active forensic practitioner, you don't know what the next phone call is going to be. For example, last February, I got a phone call asking me to be in Doha the next week. Or on a Friday afternoon you'll get a citation for a court case that you worked on six months ago telling you to be in court on Monday. So when you think you've got your week sorted, something like that comes along and everything's got to be moved.

In addition, I run research groups and I try desperately to teach at least one lecture, if not more, to every single student group that we have within my department. I think that it's important to maintain your face at the front line of teaching. So there is no commonality to what a week might look like. I may be in court, I may be overseas, I may be in the classroom.

You mentioned your research briefly. Teeth and bones spring to mind when considering how to identify a body, but your research is about using anatomical knowledge to develop new techniques for identifying people. What sort of approaches are you working on at the moment?

The biometrics we're working on at the moment are predominantly to do with identification of living people from the back of the hand. A lot of the case work that is coming in to us at the moment is child sexual abuse cases. This is one of the rare crimes where the perpetrator actually photographs themselves, or records themselves, in the act of committing the crime. As a result, parts of the offender's anatomy – predominantly the backs of their hands – appear in the images.

The anatomical information that is embedded in the back of your hand is phenomenal. For example, the creases of the skin on your knuckles are different on every single finger and different across the two hands. If you look at the pattern of superficial veins on the back of your right hand, it will be different to on your left. If you've got freckles, if you've got moles, if you've got scars, if you've got birthmarks – they'll all be individualistic in terms of their position.

When you start to add up multiple aetiological sources of information, it starts to become very very powerful in being able to identify an individual. About 82 percent of the cases that come to us result in a change of plea, because it is so very obvious when you start to look at detailed anatomy that your hands are just so identifiable.

Dear Prof. Black, thank you very much for this very interesting interview.

Interview: Helen Jaques
  (© AcademiaNet)

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