Sue Black reveals the secrets stored in our bones
Read the full transcript of our Science Focus Podcast interview with Sue Black on the human skeleton – listen to the full episode at the bottom of the page.
Sue Black: I'm currently the pro-vice chancellor for engagement at Lancaster University. So that's a senior management post within the university. But of course, in my previous life and in some of my current work, still, I undertake a fair bit of research. No teaching anymore. But I do a lot, still, of forensic casework. And I'm an anatomist and a forensic anthropologist to trade.
Amy Barrett: And you've recently published Written in Bone, which is your second book. Can you just tell me a little bit about it?
SB: Yeah, it's my second popular book. Like most academics, I've written 14 textbooks that, of course, nobody ever reads. But All That Remains was the first sort of popular book that I decided to write and then Written in Bone has been the second. The rationale behind the first book was that I really wanted to be able to leave behind a narrative in some way, mainly for my family and for my children, to get some idea of what I did and who I was.
Then the second one, it was really the publisher's idea, more than my own. But I have to admit that I really quite fell into it. And once I got going, because one of my areas of expertise is in criminal dismemberments, so what they asked me was, well, if you if you took each section of the body as a chapter and that was the only section of the body that was available to you in a criminal dismemberment, what would you be able to tell from that section of the body? Then to be able to use some of my back case histories, to be able to show cases where, in fact, that part of the body had been particularly important in the investigation or the identification of the person or whatever it may have been.
So it was it was really quite an interesting format to follow. And it really did make me think, you know, what could I tell if all I had was this bit of bone or that bit of chest or whatever it may have been. But it was an interesting experience to write.
AB: And criminal dismemberment. Can you just explain what that is?
SB: So, fortunately, most of us, the vast majority of us, will never become criminal dismemberers, because it is a rare crime and we maybe have three or perhaps four cases in the UK in a year where a body will have been dismembered. Now, when somebody dies, most of us die in a house, in a hospital, in a care home on occasion. And again, it's a very small minority of individuals will be a victim of homicide. So they will have been murdered.
And then of those, a very small number of people are disposed off in a particular way. So, you know, you put your imagination on. You've just murdered somebody. Most people don't expect to murder someone. They don't tend to go out and do it with that intent in mind. It often happens as a result of a heated event, too much alcohol, too much drugs, a fight, whatever it may be, and somebody loses their life. And at that point, when that happens, you're faced with a dilemma. What do you do? What you would like to think all of us would do is that we would go to pick up the phone to the police, to the emergency services and say, this is what I've done. But not everybody does. Some people go into a panic and they think, well, I'm just going to run away. And so they'll run away and the body will be left for somebody else to find.
Or alternatively, what will happen is they will feel I need to get rid of the body, I need to hide it. And a whole body, especially of an adult, is a very heavy and unwieldy thing. So that what they may consider to do is 'if I reduce that body into pieces, then I can get rid of the pieces'. And so criminal dismemberment is the criminal act of reducing an intact human body into specific pieces. And there are a number of reasons why people will do it, but the most common reason is to transport the body parts to somewhere else so that you can dump them.
So if you can cut off an arm, you can get that into a suitcase. And nobody thinks anything of somebody walking along the street pulling a suitcase that you can get to woodland or you can get to a river or something to be able to dump it. So most dismemberment is about transportation of the remains for dumping it. For some, it's about disfigurements. So, it's about trying to find a way to take off the features of an individual so that it will make it more difficult for them to be recognised.
And I think that was true probably in the era before DNA. But of course, now with DNA, that that's less of a reason to do it than it perhaps was in the past. So, that's one of my areas of expertise, is if we find body parts, what can we tell from those body parts that will start the criminal investigation?
AB: What an intense and must be challenging, job for you to be doing.
SB: It is, but it's incredibly interesting insofar as you have to remove yourself from what is happening. So, you know, you don't have in your mind this is what the person went through, whether the perpetrator, the victim. You have to put that aside because you have to be an impartial scientist.
But what you have in front of you is a human jigsaw, parts of a human jigsaw. And it's your job to try and piece them together so that you can create the story perhaps of what happened to the individual, but more importantly, from the field of forensic anthropology, who they were when they were alive. Because until the police know who it is that is the victim, they can't then go and check their bank records, look at their phone records. They can't go and find family, friends or colleagues to interview to try to get some clear idea of what may have happened to the individual.
So it's really important to get back to the name of the person as swiftly as possible.
AB: So when you're presented with a piece of this jigsaw, what kind of stages do you go through? Do you have like a checklist? Like, first we can look at this level of thing to tell us X, Y, Z. What do you do in that situation?
SB: So there is an overarching set of questions. And of course, the first one is, is it human? Because sometimes all we may have is not body parts, we may just have parts of a skeleton. And so you have to think about the human in the different stages in which you would go through in decomposition. So you might have a fresh body parts or you might have a decomposing body part, you might have skeletal parts. And if it's been lying out in the open an animal activity, then you may actually have fragmented body parts because the animals will have chewed.
So probably one of the first questions that you ask and answer is, is this human? Because it isn't human, then, you know, the police are really not interested in it. You're not going to set up a murder investigation based on a sheep. And so that's really critical.
Once you're certain it's human. The question will be, well, how long is the individual being dead? And if the body is intact or still fleshed, then you know that question isn't so important. But if these are fragments of bone, that becomes very important because technically there could be archaeological. And if these bone fragments for hundreds of years old, again, you're not going to set up a murder investigation. So are they human? And if they're human, how long have they been dead?
Now, if the body part is still fleshed. So, for example, on one of the cases that I talk about, which was known as the limbs in the loch. These were police divers who do their training in Loch Lomond and they go on to a particular pier on Loch Lomond, and that's where they go in and they do their dive training. And they went down one day and they found a collection of black plastic bags at the bottom and they picked them up thinking that what this was, was in fact material that had been put in there for them to train.
And of course, when they brought these out and they open the plastic bags, they realised that what they were actually looking at were human limbs that had been severed. This wasn't a training exercise at all. It was an actual case. So one of the first things that came to me were the limbs, and it was, what can you tell from the limbs?
And of course, from the bones, you can tell whether the individual was adult or not. And he was adult, but a young adult. We could tell if it was male or female because of hair patterning. So a very extensive hair patterning on the skin, for a male individual that you just wouldn't have on the five, for example, of a female.
We could calculate what his foot size was. So his shoe size and therefore from the shoe size and the length of the leg. You can calculate his height and the skin told us something about his ancestry. So very quickly, what we had was a young adult male, probably late teens, early 20s, around about 6ft in height and white. And that gives you some characteristics.
The police always say you need four things to set out. That sort of broad a brush of who you're looking for. He's a male, aged between 18 and 25, 5ft10 to 6ft in height and white. So your age, your sex, your ancestry and your height are really important characteristics. They can then go away and from the missing persons list, see if there's anybody in the area who's been reported missing that fits that profile.
And there was somebody who'd gone missing just a few days before because the limbs were very, very fresh. That then allows you to go and visit the family and allows you to take a DNA sample from the family which you can then compare with the remains. And so very swiftly, what you've got to is a point of being able to confirm identity. And once you know who the individual is, then you can really start to investigate the surroundings associated with their death.
AB: And at that point, is your association with the case finished? Have you done your job or do you end up being involved throughout the process?
SB: That varies depending on the case. So in terms of the limbs in the loch, by the time he'd been identified, that was as much as we actually needed to be involved with. But sometimes you will maintain your relationship with the investigation all the way through because more information may come to light. More questions may be raised.
And, of course, there's always the possibility, when somebody is arrested for whatever the crime was, that you will end up as an expert witness in the court. So sometimes when we go into court, we know a lot about what's happened. Sometimes we go into court and we know very little. Every case is different and each one's a challenge.
AB: And you've mentioned if the bones of archaeological interest. At what point does a bone go from being of forensic interest to archaeological?
SB: That's a very good question. And technically, it is three score years and ten, which is man's life expectancy. Of course, man's life expectancy now is a lot longer. But technically, I suppose if you're 70 or 75 years before the present date, then you are likely to be considered to be archaeological. Now, when you look back in our history, that technically means anything World War Two is now archaeological. And because that's in living memory, you know, that that's a really sort of interesting question.
But when we have a case... If children's remains, for example, are found on Saddleworth Moor, I don't think it will matter what the passage of time because it will always be linked to the Moors murders. That I think, you know, you will always have a forensic element to that. So it's not a hard and fast rule, but the rationale for it is, if it's a crime, the chances of bringing somebody to justice for that crime diminishes significantly if it happens more than 70 years ago, because the chances are that the perpetrator is dead as well.
AB: And if we have a look at the skeleton as a whole, what happens to the skeleton as from the moment that we die, what stages does it go through before it becomes nothing?
SB: It can take a long time to get to nothing. As we know, because archaeological material from hundreds, if not thousands of years, the parts that survive are bones and teeth. But the survival of that skeleton depends very, very much on the circumstances in which it's concealed.
So, for example, a skeleton or a body that's placed in an acid peat bog, then the acid will leach away all the mineral components of the bone and the bone will eventually disappear. And what you're left with is the soft tissue that becomes almost like leather. So you see these bog bodies where you've got a face because the skin has effectively been tanned in the same way as you would treat leather, because it's a sort of acid process, but the bones have all dissolved away.
Or if a body is buried in sandy conditions that have good drainage, then they'll survive intact for hundreds, if not thousands of years. So it is a really tough part of our body. Initially, it's covered by this cushion of soft tissue. That soft tissue starts to decompose relatively quickly. And eventually, if you're buried, of course, all of that soft tissue and the elements that compose it, pass back into the ground. And the skeleton is the thing that is left. But very slowly, it also can get leached away, just under normal burial circumstances. So the bones become more friable. You pick them up and they break. They become soft. And eventually too they will disappear into the ground in most circumstances. But, of course, it just does depend on the environment.
AB: And what are bones composed of?
SB: A huge number of minerals. So there's a vast range of minerals, but they're predominantly calcium hydroxyapatite. So a huge amount of calcium. Good bit of phosphorous. Good bit of other trace materials in there as well. And that becomes really important because the bones as you grow them, but as they mature as well, are always regenerating themselves. So the bones that you have now have probably regenerated within the last 10, 15 years almost in their entirety. So it's a living tissue.
We think about bones as being dead dry things. But when you're alive, they're alive, too. So if you cut them, they bleed. If you break them, they hurt. And so they need to constantly replenish and replace themselves, just like your skin does. Just like every tissue. But they do it at a fairly slow rate.
What that means is that every time you replace something in your skeleton, it is a reflection of the building blocks that you have eaten to create that material. So you are literally what you eat. Your bones can only be made off the things that you ingest. And there's some very clever work, which is not my field at all, called stable isotope analysis. And that stable isotope analysis, being able to look at the proportions of things like nitrogen and oxygen, can tell you where that individual was living whilst those building blocks of bone were being put together.
So, for example, looking at the bones of an arm that were washed ashore quite a few years ago, Professor Wolfram Meier-Augenstein, who does stable isotope analysis, he was able to say it was likely that the individual had been living in Scandinavian countries just simply because the stable isotope signature leads you to believe that's the most likely place in the world. So it's incredibly clever, but very, very logical when you understand how bone is formed and how it continues to mature over time.
AB: That's amazing. And you mentioned the bones bleed, how do they do that?
SB: They have a massive blood supply. So a huge amount of arteries go into bone and a huge amount of veins come away and they're doing a number of things. So they're taking oxygen. Deep, oxygenated blood in the arteries is going into the tissues that form the bones because it's live tissue, so it needs to have oxygen. It's producing by-products, so it needs to have them taken away. And so there is a massive supply. All nutrients are passing in that direction as well. It's a very, very busy factory, the human skeleton.
AB: And I guess I think that, you know, it makes sense to me that as a child we should consume lots of calcium rich drinks and foods. But if they're constantly regenerating, does that mean into adulthood, we still need to be taking good care of our bones?
SB: Yes, absolutely. So there is a sort of diminishing level of return in some ways in terms of calcium in the diet. Yes, we need good calcium, good source calcium in our diet right up until we're in pretty much our early 20s. After our 20s, it becomes less of a good return. But, of course, women who are pregnant and lactating, women who have given birth and are breastfeeding, then they require a huge amount of calcium involvement. So it's really important during pregnancy and then following childbirth because we're creating new bones in little people. We want to make sure that we've got sufficient calcium in our own system to allow that to happen.
AB: And over the years, has our skeleton evolved and changed as much as the outer exterior of us?
SB: No, I would say it probably hasn't. Sometimes it would be almost impossible to tell the difference between what is a skeleton from today and the skeleton from Roman times, for example. We really haven't changed much. Where you see it are in areas where we interact with the environments. So there may be diseases present in a skeleton at that time that there are no longer and vice versa, diseases we would have now that wouldn't exist in the past that we're able to pick up.
Our teeth, for example, will change. So in older diets, you would have more grit. So we tended to have more worn teeth. Whereas now if we'd had worn teeth, we'd go to the dentist. So you see sort of cultural changes. But it's much more to do with disease burden, but also sometimes to do with activity as well.
AB: And aside from holding us up, keeping things together, what does our skeleton do?
SB: Oh a number of things. It is really important as a scaffolding, a scaffolding that we can hang muscles from. Because with those muscles contracting, having a solid base upon which to contract allows us to move. So the skeleton is critical for movements. It's also critical for protection. So where you have really soft areas of the body, so the brain is a very, very soft tissue. The heart and the lungs are very soft tissues. We need to almost protect them in a little bony shell.
Of course, we should really be protecting our abdomen as well. But if you think about it, we started off as a quadrupedal animal. So actually the front of our body was underneath us. So it was originally better protected than it is now. So we are a product of what that change of evolution has been. So it protects really delicate parts. It allows us to move. It allows the muscles to have something to to attach onto. But it's also an incredibly important reservoir for minerals because it holds the minerals that the body may require at a later date and you can reactivate them, but also inside a lot of the bones. We have hematopoietic tissue. So it's the factory where blood cells are made as well. It's a really important thing. I love it.
AB: You sound very passionate about it. Is this something you've always wanted to do?
SB: No. I think it's lovely when you get to a certain advanced age that you have that ability to stop and turn around and look behind you. Steve Jobs said it. You can look at the signpost, the crossroads in your life, where you made a decision about what you wanted to do. And I've sort of done a fair bit of that of late.
And I think it really goes right the way back to being very young child. My father was a great shot. So he used to go out and shoot rabbits and pigeons and deer and those sorts of things, which is unfortunate as my maiden name was Gunn. So it goes well together. I adored my father and I would take any opportunity to go out with him just to be with him. So from a very, very early age of seven or eight, I was with my father when he was shooting and the shooting was always for the pot. So it's always brought home, it was always for food purposes. My mother was a bit squeamish. And so I was always left with plucking and gutting and skinning and gralloching, which is what you do to deer.
And when I was about 12, my father said to me, what are you going to do for a job? And I thought he meant when I was grown up. He meant when I was 12. Classic Scottish Presbyterianism. You know, you need to get a work ethic from a really young age. And so for me, the obvious thing was I got a job in a butcher's shop. And so right the way throughout my teenage years, I worked in a butcher shop.
And when I went to university, going into an anatomy department, into a dissecting room was like a butcher shop with a different animal. And having that ability and permission to dissect a human being from the top of the head to the bottom of their toes is the most incredible experience. And I was hooked. I was in love with anatomy from that point forward. I knew that I was going to be an anatomist.
But in fourth year you had to do a research project. And all the research projects at the time were on things like 'lead level in rat brain' or 'carcinomas and hampster pituitary'. And I'm pathologically terrified of rodents. So there was no way I could do a research project because I could not lift a dead mice out of a bucket. Physically impossible for me to do. And so the only other research project that was available for me was to work on human bone. And so I started my research then in my fourth year of university on identification from dbone. And again, it was if I was hooked with anatomy, then I was just doubly hooked. It totally brought in when it came to being able to study by.
AB: But you've mentioned not, I say, being squeamish. What else does it take to do the job of a forensic anthropologist?
SB: It needs a curious mind. It needs constant questioning because it becomes dangerous as a profession if you have acceptance, if you make assumptions of what you're going to find. That then, you know, can really lead an investigation down an entirely wrong route. So you need to constantly be saying why, who, when, how classic Kipling's six men. Isn't it? What, where, when, how and why. You want to know the answers to all of these questions. And if you come to it without preconceptions of what those answers are going to be, then I think that puts you in the best place to look at forensic material objectively.
Because our job as as forensic scientists is not to investigate. It's not to find somebody guilty. We're not there to pass that sort of judgement. Our role is to find evidence, retrieve evidence, analyse the evidence and give an opinion on that evidence. The people who are really important in the decision making are the people in the jury. So the jury or the decision makers and our job is to try and help them come to what we all hope will be the right decision. I'm sure sometimes most of the time it is. But of course, sometimes we do question that. But that's the nature of our judicial system.
AB: And we see some people doing your role on TV, but are fictional shows like Bones and Silent Witness an accurate portrayal?
SB: By and large, no. And I know that I'm terribly sorry to say that, but we did see in the 1990s and the 2000s a real explosion of forensic as being something in the media that took everybody's imagination, whether it was television or films or novels, crime novels, whatever it may be. It really took off. And you can understand that because, I think, the human is a curious primate and being able to have a mystery that you can solve... We all love a bit of that.
So you can see why forensics became such a sort of flame for the moths to be attracted to. What then happens is I think a lot of young people had never thought about forensic as a career for themselves. And so they were brought to it by the unrealistic nature of much of this material. And universities being universities of the time were not necessarily going to be overly moralistic about this or ethical. And if there were a lot of students wanting to do something with the word forensic in it, then they put on courses with the word forensic in it.
And I think it was back in about 2010. I think I did a trawl on UCAS to look at the number of courses that had the word forensic in them. And I think there was about 468 undergraduate courses, but it was things like forensic investigation and modern dance. Forensic investigation and early Christian doctrine. And you think, no, that's universities just being silly. That's about saying I can't get students to do this course, but if I put a little another module in, I may well do it. And I think that typified what happened to forensic at that time.
It's moved on since then. It's moved on quite significantly because, of course, very quickly those young people realised they were not going to get a job in the forensic field, having a degree in forensic investigation and modern dance. And so I think from that point forward, there was a real backlash. It was almost like that was the first wave on the beach. And once that had crashed, the second wave that was coming in was a much more realistic.
And so now there's a lot more training associated with getting forensic experts into the real science, because what's one of my biggest piece of advice is if you're really interested in doing forensic science, concentrate on the science bit, not on the forensic bit. Because what the courtroom needs are good scientists. So be a biologist or a chemist or a physicist or a mathematician or whatever it may be, be that first. And then when you take your skills into the courtroom, then you become the forensic biologist or the forensic anthropologist or the forensic, whatever it may be. But don't go for the forensic word first.
AB: And do you remember what it was like for you to first work with human remains?
SB: So the first time I worked with human remains would be in the dissecting room in Aberdeen University and I would have been 18 or 19 at the time. And our culture is such that we tend not to be exposed to the dead, whereas in previous cultures if granny died, we laid her out in the front room and, you know, everybody would come and say goodbye to her.
We don't do that anymore. We've sort of put death at a distance and we've allowed other people to take control over the death process.
So the first time that I really had any interaction with the deceased was in the anatomy department. And you walked into this room. It was a huge room, almost like a conservatory in some ways because it had a glass ceiling and an opaque glass windows all the way around the room. And it had the most beautiful. I think it was oak parquet flooring. So it was a really strange room. But you had between 50 and 55 tables, and these metal tables with glass tops. And on the top of that was obviously the body and each one covered in a sheet. So when you walked into the room, all you saw were these white mounds in rows and lines along the room. And that kind of you never forget it. That takes your breath away because you know what you're there to do, but you've no idea what it's going to be like.
And the next thing you do is you take off the white sheet and you're faced with the dead and you've never felt this before. So, you know, you have to touch and you feel really embarrassed about touching. This is somebody else's body who's dead. And then they expect you to put a blade onto a scalpel handle. And no one tells you how to do that. You always end up slicing your fingers off. So you've always got blood going everywhere and fingers all sort of clustered up. And then you have to make that first cut.
And it's it's something you never forget. It's a Rubicon that you can only cross once when you take a scalpel. And usually we would go to the front of the chest because there are a few mistakes that you can make there with the first cut, because it is true, first cut is usually the deepest. And if there's bone underneath there, which there is, and the sternum, you can't cut too deeply. That's why we start there.
And you take that long line of cuts from that little dimple up at the top of your neck, just above your breastbone, down to the base of your breastbone in that first line. And then the second cut that you make is out to either side at the top of that cut out across your collarbones. And so what you've made is a flap of skin that you can now reflect. And what you don't realise is that the fat, once you touch it, if your hands are warm, it starts to liquefy. So things get very slippy and all the things that you don't expect in dissection for it to be wet, for it to be slippy, for it to be difficult to handle.
And you think, you know, how am I going to take a year to dissect this body? You know, I can do it in 10 minutes. Once you've taken off that first flap of skin and realise how difficult it is and exactly what's in there, you know that a year isn't anywhere near enough to learn human anatomy.
AB: I talk to a lot of scientists and researchers in this job, and we always kind of come to what recent technology is changing the way they do their job. But is there technology that's affecting your job or is it going to remain very hands on?
SB: I think it depends on on which part of the job you're talking about. So if you look in the 1980s when Alec Jeffreys in Leicester had that moment in his lAB: where, you know, in frustration, he couldn't get his research project to work and he couldn't understand why. And the reason he couldn't get it to work was because he hadn't appreciated, none of us had, that everyone's DNA was different. Once he'd made that eureka moment, then every forensic science, I think, changed irreversibly at that point.
So DNA, the use of DNA analysis in the forensic world has been the big game changer. Of course, as that technology has moved on, we've been able to do more and more. But there comes a point sometimes where the technology is an advance of the understanding. So we now know that we can get DNA from a single cell. But what we don't know is how DNA is shared. We don't know about its transfer. We don't know about its persistence. How long does it last on a woollen jumper? How long does it last on a plastic sheet? And so we're asking questions now that the DNA technology can't tell us. And so we have to be very careful to make sure that the technology and the understanding run in parallel.
When it comes to the other side of work that I do, which is identification of individuals from images. And these images are usually images of child sexual abuse. The part of the perpetrator that is in that image is often the back of their hand. And so we've been doing a lot of research on an anatomical perspective on how to identify perpetrators from the anatomy of their back of their hands.
The features that you can see on the back of your hands, anatomically are really valuable. So the pattern of superficial veins on the back of your right hand will be different to your left. And they'll be different if you're an identical twin. If you look at the pattern of skin creases across the knuckles of your fingers, they're different in each of your fingers and different across both of your hands. If you have freckles or birthmarks or moles, they're in a different place to anybody else. If you have scars, chances are they'll be a different size, different orientation, different location.
So there's all sorts of pieces of anatomy from different sources of aetiology wrapped up in the back of your hand. And these images appear particularly in relation to child sexual abuse. So we've been working on this for about 16 years now and we've helped the police to secure about 30 life sentences and about 400 years of prison sentencing and 82 per cent of the cases we take on result in a change of plea. So the perpetrator goes from no comment or that's not me, to going, 'yeah, OK. It is me.' And that tells you that there's a real power and value behind the science in being able to say somebody, 'there is no point in denying it. You may as well admit it and then you'll get a reduced sentence for admitting it, but you may as well.'
And where we find the next stage of development really important for that is in relation to A.I. and machine learning. So, when you look at the police, when they download images from somebodies phone or from their computer, they may have hundreds of thousands of images, because if you are somebody who is involved in child sexual abuse, often what you will do is you go into the dark web and you're able to download packages of images.
And those images are often 10,000 or 20,000 at a time. It's not possible for us to go through 20,000 images because it simply isn't. But if we can train a computer to say, can you find a hand in this image if you can find a hand, what's the vein pattern in this image? What's the knuckle crease pattern in this image? You create an algorithm that will allow you to do that. You then have a pattern for that individual. You can then run that algorithm through the database of hundreds, thousands and sometimes even millions of images and say, does this person appear in any other images? And if they do, then what you can start to do, hopefully, is connect cases that you weren't able to connect before because it's the same perpetrator and perpetrators move around the world.
So you get the French police picking up images. In France, you'll get the American police picking up images in America because it's on somebody's computer. There are somebodies phone there, but you're not able to link them. We now might be able to say, yes, that's the same individual. So that's what A.I. and machine learning, we hope, will be able to do for that part of the research that I carry out.
AB: That's incredible.
SB: Science is cool. It's incredibly cool. And anybody who doesn't think that need to have a go. You know, all of the problems, many of the problems of the world, if not all, have got some form of a solution somewhere in a bit of science and that that power to be able to harness that power of science to make things better. To ensure that the right people are put on the right side of the bars is all incredibly important for health and wellbeing, not just of a person, but of a community and of a nation.
And, you know, science has just got so much to offer and so many exciting, so many questions not yet answered. And isn't that the most exciting detective investigation ever? And we know forensic science gets people, puts the science bit that should be getting them, not the forensic bit. Forensic just means in the courtroom, nothing more than that.
AB: Finally, we've talked about some of the stories that you've been able to glean from bones and there's a lot more in your book. But do you ever think about the stories that your own skeleton will tell in the future?
SB: I do. Right at the end of the book, I decided that I would write a list of all of the things that I thought about. So I started at the top of my head and went to the bottom, my toes, finding all of the things that I know my body has gone through over this half century and more. And you know how that would manifest on the skeleton.
So say somebody found my bones, they'd be able to identify that healed fracture of my left collarbone. I'd be able to point them. Well, I wouldn't, but they'd be able to point to the arthritis and my big toe. All of those sorts of things I've listed. And I think, you know, it's a really interesting exercise to do, thinking about your own body and thinking about all the things that you've gone through. Have they left a mark? And the reason that I've done it is, yeah, it was an interesting exercise to do.
But I also leave that list, which I'll add to because hopefully I've got a few years left in me yet. And there's a lot more that I can abuse my skeleton with when I die. I think I would be a hypocrite as an anatomist if I didn't leave my body for dissection. So I have every intention of leaving my body for dissection. I want it to be the anatomy department at Dundee University because that was the department that I had 15 years of work in. But we also developed a method of embalming there, introduced it called 'Thiel', which is a soft fix embalming, which means the bodies are very, very lifelike. So I'd like to be thieled.
I'd like to be dissected. I'd rather be dissected by science students than either medics or dentists. And my reason for that is the medics and dentists just don't have the time and their curriculum to do the depth of dissection that a scientist does. So I want to be thoroughly pulled apart tissue by tissue so that students can learn the maximum that they can from this body.
And then the bit that, you know, might be challenging for some is that I'm happy for them to collect together all the sort of viscera and the muscle and skin and everything else and cremate that just burn that. There'll be nothing left. But I'd like them to take my bones. And you have to boil them down because you have to get rid of the fat and all the bits of muscle and tendon attaching.
And then ideally, I'd like to be strong as an articulated skeleton in the dissecting room, because as a teacher, you then have the opportunity to teach for the entirety of your death, which is the most appropriate thing, isn't it? I'm an anatomist and a forensic anthropologist who wants to be an articulated skeleton when she grows up, which feels just right.
And if I've got the list alongside it, of all the things that have happened to me, then whoever is looking at my body and my bones can go, Yeah, there is that and there is that. And oh, she missed that, she didn't put that in the list. That, to me, would just be fantastic. But whether it will happen, you know, what you want and what you get is not always the same thing.
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This podcast was supported by brilliant.org, helping people build quantitative skills in maths, science, and computer science with fun and challenging interactive explorations.
Listen to more episodes of the Science Focus Podcast:
- Brian Switek: How did bones evolve?
- Mark O'Connell: Transhumanism: using technology to live forever
- Bill Bryson: What should we know about how our bodies work?
- Nathan Lents: Everything that's wrong with the human body
- Ritu Raman: Can you build with biology?
- Aleks Krotoski: What happens to your data when you die?
Amy is the Editorial Assistant at BBC Science Focus. Her BA degree specialised in science publishing and she has been working as a journalist since graduating in 2018. In 2020, Amy was named Editorial Assistant of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors. She looks after all things books, culture and media. Her interests range from natural history and wildlife, to women in STEM and accessibility tech.