August 8, 2014 12:45 pm

Inside the mortuary with the UK’s leading forensic scientists

The pioneering work done by Professor Sue Black’s team at the University of Dundee leads the field
Sue Black, left, and Helen Meadows©Maja Daniels

Sue Black, left, and Helen Meadows

Professor Sue Black knows exactly what she wants to happen when she dies. “I want all the tissue off and I want to be restrung as a skeleton in that corner so I don’t miss out on anything,” she says, pointing across the dissection room at the University of Dundee Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification (Cahid), where she is director. Her chosen resting place is a prime spot to watch over a room containing dozens of tables, each holding a bulky shape covered in a plastic sheet. Underneath are cadavers that have been donated to the centre and embalmed using an innovative method. The board near the doorway bears a detailed list of instructions: “Close computer files … No phones … Spray body …”

The work done in this room lies at the heart of a department that handles some of the UK’s most cutting-edge research on forensics and anatomy. “We’re not just a department that teaches – we’re a department that does,” says Black. She and her colleagues have worked on everything from murder cases to training police officers in mass victim identification to helping break up Scotland’s biggest paedophile ring in 2009. Black’s own career as a forensic anthropologist has spanned the exhumation of mass graves in Kosovo and the analysis of photographs allegedly depicting torture victims in Syria.

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When Black arrived at Dundee in 2003, her department was a sleepier place: managed by three men all over 60. “They were fantastic … they took me aside and said, ‘Look we know you want to make changes – you go on and do it.’” She did. Today it is a bustling, competitive centre that was a winner of this year’s prestigious Queen’s Anniversary Prize. Just a few steps away from the dissection room is her pride and joy: a new state-of-the-art mortuary, recently opened and the only place in the UK to use the Thiel embalming process. As Black strides in, skirting a stack of cardboard coffins, she pats the gleaming submersion tanks that stretch out down the room like a row of racehorses. Then she stops. “Something smells odd,” she says, inspecting a drain.

Forensic anthropologist Professor Sue Black of Dundee University at Monkland Cemetery where they are starting to examine a burial plot on January 8, 2013 in Coatbridge, Scotland©Getty

Sue Black in her role training the police

Something does indeed smell odd. The chemical stench is overwhelming, clinging to hair and clothes and just as hard to stomach as anything you might see on the dissection table. There are 44 tanks in the room, holding up to 110 bodies. At the touch of a button, a cadaver that is only partway through the three to five-month process whirrs up from the depths. It is, as Black says, “an image that stays with you”. By the end, the skin will have whitened, the hair and fingernails will have come off and the body will be left smooth and pliable; ready for trainee doctors and dentists and forensic anthropologists, among others, to start learning.

Black is not a woman who thinks small. The mortuary that Dundee used when she arrived was old and dilapidated, so when inspectors requested renovation in 2006, she persuaded the university to invest in a new one. It agreed, but only if she raised £1m towards the cost. So began the Million for a Morgue project. Black and her colleagues often advise crime writers – “they use us shamelessly” – on the gorier intricacies of their plots. Now the tables were turned as their fans competed to raise money and name the space after their favourite author. This July, it was announced that the mortuary would be known as the Val McDermid Mortuary, with the Stuart MacBride Dissecting Room taking the runner-up position. Ever ambitious, Black had the mortuary designed to take the weight of another two floors – a hypothetical surgical centre – on top.

It was during this period of change that Black started to question the method of embalming used at Dundee. “If we’re going to change our mortuary, then maybe we need to look at what we’re doing in there,” she says. A soft-fix embalming technique that allowed cadavers to be less rigid and more similar to patients had emerged in Austria in 1992, named after its creator, Professor Walter Thiel. Cahid decided to experiment with this process, embalming a couple of cadavers, which it then handed over to surgeons. Their feedback, says Black, was enthusiastic: “They said, ‘It’s like working with a patient, except they’re cold and there’s no pulse. The flexibility, the feel of the tissue under the equipment, everything is realistic.’”

When our dissection room is busy, it’s a spirit-lifting place

The department decided to change methods. In the dissection room, the technician shows me a cadaver embalmed using the older – and more widespread – method of formalin. It is leathery to the touch, hard and similar to something you’d find in the British Museum. Then the technician shows me a body embalmed using the Thiel method. The hand is eerily lifelike, cold and smooth but floppy, giving doctors a sense of what it might be like to operate on a patient. The realism of these cadavers can enable doctors to experiment with procedures (inserting tubes into the body, for example) and develop new techniques without having to try them on a patient first. Dundee gets visitors from all over the world, coming to see whether they want to introduce the method in their own institutions.

The fundraising for the mortuary had another side-effect: more and more people have come forward asking to donate their bodies. “It’s a department that’s completely and utterly predicated on people’s gift of the closest part of themselves. Which is themselves,” Black says. Some even call up asking to be “Thieled”. In 2003, Dundee received between 30 and 35 cadavers annually. In this year’s anatomy funeral (held after research is completed), the department cremated 75. Black and her colleagues may lean on gurneys and joke about being mortuary calendar girls to raise money for future development, but when they’re talking about individuals bequeathing their bodies, the tone changes. Students and academics alike line the chapel walls at the annual funeral service, a final goodbye to the individuals they have learnt their trade on. “It’s that moment for families when they say, ‘This is for my dad. All of these incredibly bright young people who are going to go out into the world will take a bit of my dad with them,’” says Black. “When our dissection room is busy, it’s a constant buzz of energy and inspiration and learning: it’s a spirit-lifting place.”

. . .

If you spend long enough at Cahid, you start to notice almost everyone you pass in the corridors is a woman. Contrary to many people’s assumptions, forensics is a very female field (anatomy is also becoming more so). Seven out of nine of the UK’s highest certified forensic practitioners are women, as are 90 per cent of Dundee’s forensic anthropology students. “We have no idea what it is about forensics. Whether it’s because it’s a new science and doesn’t have the ceilings that other sciences have, or maybe it’s more poorly paid, or maybe it’s sexier,” says Black. “But, for whatever reason, it ticks the boxes for women’s brains.”

One of these women is Dr Helen Meadows, a postdoctoral research assistant who met Black when Meadows was an undergraduate at St Andrews. “I wasn’t even associated with this university and you took me on,” she recalls. Meadows’ work with Black is now starting to make waves in its own right and lies behind some of Cahid’s most prominent successes in cracking child abuse cases.

Sue Black and Helen Meadows in the dissection room©Maja Daniels

Sue Black and Helen Meadows in the dissection room

The hand is Meadows’ area of focus. Variations in scars, skin pigmentation, the smallest nooks and crannies of the fingernail and, most importantly, superficial vein patterns: all of these can build a body of evidence and allow the police to identify an offender in an incriminating photograph. “The back of the hand is part of the anatomy that an offender is quite happy to have in an image, whereas they wouldn’t necessarily want their face captured,” Meadows says. In 2009, Cahid’s work was instrumental in the Neil Strachan case, part of Scotland’s biggest paedophile ring. His unusually distorted lunula (the white half moon at the bottom of a nail) helped identify and convict him.

Meadows and her colleagues have built up the UK’s only database of the hand’s vein patterns, with around 800 samples. Of the 40 or so cases they have worked on, their data have resulted in over 80 per cent of suspects changing their plea. This saves the courts time and money but also means vulnerable children don’t have to give evidence, a factor that can often lead to cases being dropped. “We’ve had a lot of feedback from police forces saying how grateful families have been because sometimes they’re giving evidence against their grandfather, their uncle, their dad’s best friend,” says Black. Meadows is also looking into whether a similar vein analysis will work for images of genitals, although the research area has not proved as fruitful so far.

Talking in Black’s office, the predominant tone is cheerful. Skulls and skeletons are scattered around as decorations, some in gingerbread form, others as magnets. But the work by academics such as Meadows and Black deals with some of the worst elements of humanity. How do you cope when your job may involve working on images of abuse or dismemberment, or training police officers to identify corpses in a mass casualty? The child abuse photographs Meadows examines often have the most offensive elements removed beforehand. But even so, she sits with her screen facing away from the office door, has special permission to access banned websites and looks at things only someone of her academic level is allowed to see. Her approach is to be as clinical as possible. “It’s just like going to the dissection room and looking at an isolated part of the body and treating it in that way,” she says.

The images don’t ever go away but you manage them

Black is similarly pragmatic. “[The images] don’t ever go away but you manage them because you know you didn’t cause this, you didn’t do this, you’re not responsible for it,” she says. “You cannot influence what has happened in the past – you can only do your part of the teamwork to influence what happens in the future.” She has often found herself assuming a maternal role in stressful fieldwork situations, offering an ear to others in Kosovo, opening a beer for them and just listening.

But she also tells an unsettling story about watching her teenage daughter dance with an older man at a school party. Suddenly she became aware that she was watching his every step, aware of every place he put his hands. He turned out to be the father of a friend. “I’ve never sought counselling, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need it,” she says. “The thing with post-traumatic stress disorder is an awareness that you’re not in control of where it manifests or when it manifests. You don’t know what the trigger will be that will set it off.” The school dance was, Black believes, the closest she has come to experiencing PTSD and how it can cause your professional life to intrude on your personal one.

Ultimately, every day at Cahid revolves around the realities of death. As a result, “we are not an ivory tower department”, says Black. “We deal with grief and we deal with death and we deal with loss.” This creates a sense of community, which permeates the work, whether by the academics or the students. “For 18-year-olds going into a dissecting room, taking that scalpel for the first time and having to cut through the skin, it’s a really difficult thing to do,” she says. This autumn, a new class will take up their tools on a new set of cadavers. Life goes on.

Alice Fishburn is deputy editor of FT Weekend Magazine. To comment on this article please email magazineletters@ft.com

Photographs: Maja Daniels; Getty Images

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