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Killer Instincts

National Library of Medicine Exhibit Sheds Sometimes Grisly Light on Forensic Medicine

By Suz Redfearn
Special to the Washington Post
Tuesday, February 14, 2006; Page H01

Who knew that a ball-peen hammer, if aimed just so and wielded with force, could cause a one-inch portion of a skull to cave in like a crater? Or that, when death comes via a gunshot to the head, the skull often shatters in a way that lets investigators piece the fragments back together, leaving only the hole where the bullet entered?

When in 1935, British investigators superimposed this photo-transparency of a recovered skull on a portrait of Isabella Ruxton, the features matched. The
When in 1935, British investigators superimposed this photo-transparency of a recovered skull on a portrait of Isabella Ruxton, the features matched. The "bone forensics" method helped convict her common-law husband in her murder and that of their housemaid. (University of Glasgow)

Medical examiners know and, starting Thursday, Washingtonians have a chance to better appreciate the value of that knowledge through a new exhibit at the National Institutes of Health's National Library of Medicine. "Visible Proofs: Forensic Views of the Body" traces the morbid history and often ingenious methods of forensic science -- the collection of whodunit techniques that use bodily evidence to establish manner of death and, sometimes, finger murderers. And there are just enough grisly artifacts to keep lovers of the macabre -- not to mention fans of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" -- intrigued.

Displays include:

Instruments used in President Lincoln's autopsy, performed by two high-ranking Army surgeons on the second floor of the White House, were still fairly crude. Specialized kits of autopsy instruments first became commercially available in the early 1800s.
Instruments used in President Lincoln's autopsy, performed by two high-ranking Army surgeons on the second floor of the White House, were still fairly crude. Specialized kits of autopsy instruments first became commercially available in the early 1800s. (National Museum of American History, Behring Center, Smithsonian Institution)
  • a human heart, circa 1937, with a bullet hole in it.
  • a human stomach rippled by arsenic poisoning.
  • the blow fly larvae found on a 1986 murder victim that helped pinpoint the time of death.
  • That's just for starters. The interactive displays are where things really get interesting. Take the virtual autopsy display, which lets you witness autopsies on images of humans projected onto what looks like an autopsy table, and encourages you to um, take a stab at the cause of death based on anatomical evidence; Or the computer software that lets you choose from hundred of eyes, noses and mouths to build a facial composite of a criminal -- just like witnesses do. Or the video kiosk that offers footage of autopsies (warning: not for the faint of stomach; less squeamish viewers may marvel at how easily a knife slices through a human brain; you'd swear it was tofu).

    An honor guard carries the coffin of First Lt. Michael Blassie for reburial, with full military honors, at Arlington National Cemetery in 1998. Fourteen years earlier, after he was shot down in Vietnam, his unidentified remains had been laid to rest in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Once DNA testing became available, Blassie's family petitioned the Department of Defense to let forensic pathologists exhume the remains and test bone tissue against DNA samples provided by family. The samples matched.
    An honor guard carries the coffin of First Lt. Michael Blassie for reburial, with full military honors, at Arlington National Cemetery in 1998. Fourteen years earlier, after he was shot down in Vietnam, his unidentified remains had been laid to rest in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Once DNA testing became available, Blassie's family petitioned the Department of Defense to let forensic pathologists exhume the remains and test bone tissue against DNA samples provided by family. The samples matched. (Courtesy of the Blassie Family)

    "The show gives the public a chance to see the detailed work of the medical examiner, while giving the old hand a chance to see how things like genomics and toxicology and new imaging systems have vastly improved our ability to make sense of unexplained death," said library director Donald A.B. Lindberg, who interned in the New York medical examiner's office, the site of many key forensic discoveries.

    Forensic medicine traces its origins to the 17th century, when dissections became more common, human anatomy better understood, and the court systems of Europe began to mature. Some of the first forensic treatises from the 1600s are on display in the exhibit.

    In the 1800s, physician Thomas Wakley was elected coroner in a district of London and used his position to expose cases where coroners without medical training had failed to honestly investigate suspicious deaths. Reform took longer to reach America, however, where coroners regularly took bribes to cover up suicides, abortions and murders.

    A Scottish officer carries human remains of Isabella Ruxton and her housemaid, murdered in 1935. Their killer, Isabella's husband, had dismembered the bodies and tried to remove any identifying marks, including fingertips. Forty-three pieces of tissue were painstakingly recovered to establish the victims' identities. Bone forensics was used to solve the crime.
    A Scottish officer carries human remains of Isabella Ruxton and her housemaid, murdered in 1935. Their killer, Isabella's husband, had dismembered the bodies and tried to remove any identifying marks, including fingertips. Forty-three pieces of tissue were painstakingly recovered to establish the victims' identities. Bone forensics was used to solve the crime. (University of Glasgow)

    The sophistication of forensic science grew in direct response to that of murderers. In the early 1800s, when more poisons such as arsenic and strychnine became commercially available, toxicology -- the study of how poisonous substances act in the body -- became an emerging field.

    Ways of classifying and cataloguing criminals evolved, too.

    Nineteenth-century Frenchman Alphonse Bertillon developed an elaborate classification system for identifying "rogues" based on measurements of their physical features. Bertillon also set standards for crime-scene photography, exhibiting his shots (some of them on display in the NLM show) at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He also invented the mug shot, known then as a "Bertillon card."

    Bodily organs can reveal murderous secrets. A 1937 specimen shows a kidney sliced open to show the stab wound that was the cause of death. The display comes from the New York Medical Examiner's Office.
    Bodily organs can reveal murderous secrets. A 1937 specimen shows a kidney sliced open to show the stab wound that was the cause of death. The display comes from the New York Medical Examiner's Office. (New York City Medical Examiner’s Collection, National Museum of Health and Medicine, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Washington, D.C.)

    Michael Sappol, curator of the exhibit, says he understands what drew people to Bertillon's photos and what draws them to similar images now.

    "The dead body is powerful, and visually compelling -- if not always pleasant to look at," said Sappol, the author of "A Traffic of Dead Bodies" (Princeton University Press, 2002) . "It is largely veiled to us, recalcitrant -- but medical and legal professionals have, over the centuries, developed ways of making the dead body visible and meaningful, and derived power and authority by virtue of their command over the dead."

    A child's
    A child's "Inkless Stainless G-Men Fingerprint Set" from 1937 testifies to public fascination with forensic tools. Forensic tales circulated as early as the 1600s. (National Library of Medicine)

    Among the several milestones in forensic history that the exhibit documents: The first fingerprints used to secure a murder conviction came from an 1892 case. Through analysis of a bloody thumbprint, the killer of two Argentine boys was found to be -- gasp -- their mother. The first death row prisoner to be exonerated through DNA testing was Kirk Bloodsworth, cleared in 1993.

    "Visible Proofs" steps into the future as well, exploring the idea of "virtopsy" -- the use of magnetic resonance imaging to perform noninvasive, virtual autopsies. This may prove useful for people whose religions don't allow traditional autopsy.

    The exhibit ends on a socially conscious note, with a display about a group of students who risked their lives to help anthropologist Clyde Snow excavate hundreds of mass graves from Argentina's "Dirty War" of 1976-83. Snow and the students gathered enough evidence to convict six former junta leaders for the deaths of thousands of "the disappeared." Their work has inspired the use of forensic science to investigate human rights abuses across the globe.

    Sappol said he hoped the exhibit would entertain and inform visitors -- and maybe prompt some to enter the field. "The scholarship on the history of forensics is growing, but the field is still very much under-studied and very fragmented," he said. "We also hope the exhibition might foster scholarship in the field."

    classic
    E.R. Henry's classic "Classification and Uses of Fingerprints" was published in 1900 in London. The Henry Classification System, a modified version of which is still in use, divides fingerprint records into groupings based on pattern types. The system makes it possible to search large numbers of police fingerprint records by classifying fingerprints according to whether they have an "arch," "whorl" or "loop." (National Library of Medicine)
    Kirk Bloodsworth, shown in 2003, became the first death row inmate to be cleared by DNA evidence, reviewed at his lawyer's urging in 1993. Eight years earlier, Bloodsworth had been sentenced to death in Maryland for the killing, sexual assault and mutilation of a 9-year-old girl. He now works for the Justice Project, a nonprofit group that works for judicial reform.
    Kirk Bloodsworth, shown in 2003, became the first death row inmate to be cleared by DNA evidence, reviewed at his lawyer's urging in 1993. Eight years earlier, Bloodsworth had been sentenced to death in Maryland for the killing, sexual assault and mutilation of a 9-year-old girl. He now works for the Justice Project, a nonprofit group that works for judicial reform. (Photograph by Dan Mullen, The Justice Project)

    Suz Redfearn is a Washington area freelance writer. Comments: health@washpost.com.

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