Sue BlackProfessor of Anatomy and Forensic Anthropology, University of Dundee

Interview location: Wellcome Building, Dundee University
Interview date: 19th September 2007


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SA:  Nobody as a kid imagines themselves doing what you're doing…

SB:  God no!

SA:  So how did you come to be doing this?

SB:  It's a long story.  My father, God bless him, is one of these people that whenever you start a conversation with him he's got a story to tell before you get there -- and I've just turned into my father as I've got older.  So I apologise for this, it'll take a while!  But when I was very young my father and mother managed a hotel on the West Coast of Scotland, right on the shores of Loch Carron – absolutely beautiful countryside.  Anyway there was a dustman's strike one summer -- I must have been seven or eight, so it would have been late 60s -- and I was walking round the back of the hotel with my father.  All the bin bags and everything were stacked up behind the hotel, and my father asked me to pass him a brush – now he denies this ever happened! – but he asked me to pass him a brush.  He'd cornered a rat and I remember watching my father beating this rat to death.  I could see its tail lashing, I could see its eyes, I could hear it growling.  I can still see the eyes, the teeth, the tail.  And from that point onwards I had (and still have) an absolute and utter morbid fear of rodents.  So anything vaguely rodent-based…can't do ...absolutely can't do!

When I went through secondary school I really liked biology…I got a really nice opportunity last year through the Royal Society of Edinburgh to go back to my school, which was Inverness Royal Academy, and they brought my biology teacher out of retirement, which was just wonderful, because he was the person who said to me "when you go to university".  Nobody in my family had gone to university, and suddenly he had faith in me.  I thought, "I'm never going to go to university," [hushed tones], but he believed in me.  And my grandmother, who'd been the most important person in my life, had always said to me too: "You're our varsity girl." 

Nobody in my family had gone to universityI was 17 when I left home, at the end of fifth year in school. (I knew that if I didn't get out, either I'd kill my parents or they'd kill me!  I loved them dearly, but the time had come.)  In my first year at university I did things like chemistry, and psychology and various things, and that was fine.  I had no idea what I wanted to do eventually, except that I had to do something vaguely biological. 

At the end of second year the only two things that I was any real good at were anatomy and botany.  I went to go and see the tutors in botany and anatomy, and the botanist was the most boring person, bless his heart, on the earth.  And I thought: "I can't name and draw plants for the rest of my life.  I can't!  I'll do anatomy."  And so I went into anatomy.  Third year was dissection and I loved it, absolutely loved dissection.  But in fourth year you had to do a research project, and all the research projects involved things like lead level in the rat brain, and CarcinomaA type of cancer that starts in epithelia, the tissues that line or cover most body organs.  At least 80% of cancers are carcinomas (see also sarcoma, leukaemia, lymphoma). in situ in the hamster pituitary.  And nothing could persuade me to lift a dead rodent out of a bucket, or kill a rodent. It's a complete and utter, paranoid illogical fear because of my father.  So when it came to a research project I went to one of the tutors and said, "Look, I can't do mice, rats, hamsters – can't do them alive or dead."  And she said, "Well, we can put a project together on human bone, how about that?"  Perfect, absolutely perfect, as long as it didn't involve a rodent I was happy.

So I did my honours project in the identification of human bone.  And my head of department at the time, John Clegg came back and said, "Look, we've got some money if you want to stay and do your PhD here."  So at no point along the way did I ever actually decide this was the route I was going into. I've fallen into it the whole way along -- which is an absolute nightmare for any school that's trying to use you as a career model, because you say, "Well, I didn't really have a clue what I wanted to do." 

So I did my PhD, and then a very dear friend of mine, Louise Scheuer contacted me to say that there was a vacancy in the department in which she worked, at St Thomas’ in London.  So I interviewed for the job, and it was a fairly aggressive panel, and fairly negative panel.  But there were two people on there who wanted somebody into the post who could teach anatomy -- because at that time there were so many people in anatomy departments who couldn't teach anatomy, they were cell biologists and biochemists and such things -- and I at least had anatomy behind me. 

It was the head of department at the time, Michael Day, who was the great Laetoli footprints chap out of the "hominids from Africa", you know? [Refers to the discovery in 1976 in Laetoli, Tanzania, of fossil hominid footprints from around 3.6 million years ago  that are some of the oldest evidence of bipedalism in our human ancestors.]  His final question to me was: "If I needed you to go into my dissecting room this afternoon to teach, could you do it?"  And I said, "Yes, of course I could."  And that was it; that sealed it.

First steps into forensics

Does anybody up there know anything about bones?So I started lecturing at St Thomas' in London.  Then one day Iain West, who was the forensic pathologist (who's now sadly deceased), phoned up the anatomy department and said, "I've got some bones, does anybody up there know anything about bones?"   I got sent down, and it was the most miserable policeman standing there, and he sort of looked me up and down and you could see him thinking "Slip of a girl, what's she gonna know?"  And I thought, "I'm not going to win with this man."  But we took the bones and we put them in a plastic bag.  (They'd been found in a rubbish tip; there was a suspected missing person and the intelligence was they'd been dumped in a rubbish tip.)  So we put them on the radiator and left them there for about 10 minutes. 

Then I opened the bag and stuck it under his nose and said, "Now, tell me what you can smell."  And he said, "Well, that smells like roast lamb."  And I said, "Exactly.  They're sheep bones".  Because sheep smell like lamb; humans don't smell like lamb.  And he was so impressed, this policeman, that he'd got it right, that next time there were some bones he said, "Oh, I'll have that woman from anatomy."  And so very, very gradually I just started doing more and more of the bones work around London, and then ended up doing work for the foreign office.  And it just sort of spiralled out from there.


Reading the bones

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SA:  And what did you learn about bones at the beginning? Obviously to identify them, yes, but what can you tell from bones?  What work do you do with bones?

SB:  Well the big thing is… When you're given a pile of bones -- it might be something to do with the World Trade Centre, it might be the London bombings -- the first thing is: are they human or not?  It's very easy, if you've got a skull, to say if they're human or not, but if it's a tiny little bone from a finger or  tail or something like that…

You've got to bear in mind that with things like the World Trade Centre, there were restaurants, so there was beef, and there was pork, and there was lamb in the remains.  When the London bombs went off there were people carrying their shopping – you know, they had Sainsbury's chickens and such things.  Or there would be cats or dogs in the tunnel.  So you've got to separate out: is it human or not?  And if it's not human, you can put it to one side, because our investigation as forensic anthropologists is mostly about: who is or was the person?  So once we've established it is a person, we might be asked, "How long has this person been dead?"  Because if the person's been dead more than 70 years before the current date then really it's no longer a forensic case.  It's technically archaeological by then.  So if you died 71 years ago, on paper you're technically archaeological.

SA:  Literally?  That's the cut-off point?

SB:  Yes.  It's man's 'three score years and ten', and if it's a murder case, the chances of the perpetrator of that murder still being alive are of course slim.  So there's often nothing technically for police to investigate.  You will always get cases that won't fall neatly into that sort of category – for example, if you find children's remains on Saddleworth Moor, then it doesn't matter whether it's 70, 100, or 150 years from now, they will still possibly be the Moors Murders.  There are certain cases that have a notoriety. 

But if you're looking at remains that…I've got an evidence bag sitting down there [she gestures to a bag against the wall]; there's a human femur in there, a thigh bone… I don't believe it's recent; I believe it's archaeological.  But we're waiting for the dating to come back.  If it is archaeological, we'll hand it over to the archaeologists.  But if it's something more recent the police will have to decide, based on that date: do we investigate it or do we not?  So you've got to wait for that information.  Is it human?  How long has it been dead?  And then, what more can I tell? 

Ultimately what we're trying to get to is the name of the deceased person.  So you want to know the four basic biological characteristics of the person.  We've all got a sex: we're either male, or we're female, but there is a grey area in between – there are those who have genetic conditions that mean they are neither specifically male nor female.  And we have gender reassignment, so you have people who may be born biologically as one sex, but opted to live and perhaps go through surgical procedures and live their lives as the opposite sex.

SA:  And can you tell any of that in their remains?

SB:  Some of it you can.  Obviously if you've got soft tissue, that helps enormously because you can look at the external indicators of sex, and then you can look at the internal ones as well, and try to match them together.  Once you lose the soft tissue then you lose a lot of information, and that becomes much, much more difficult.  And it is such a very, very small sector of society that fits into that sort of middle area…

Challenges in assigning age and race

It's much easier to assign age to a child than to an adultSo first of all we decide are you male or female?  Then we decide how old you were when you died.  And it's much easier to assign an age to a child than it is to an adult, because children go through a phase of quite regular growth, so that you can go into Marks and Spencers or some shop and buy a pair of trousers for a six-year-old.  You can't buy them for a 42-year-old.  Because the growth and the age are so closely related in a child, we can use that and get very, very close.  If you have a fetus you can identify age to within weeks. If it's a young child it's to within months.  An older child it's to within a year or so.  By the time you reach puberty it's to within a couple of years. 

But once you get beyond puberty, once all the growth changes have stopped, then the human body goes through a stage of maintenance, in the twenties, so if it's in a maintenance phase we can say that person is in their twenties.  But beyond the twenties, unfortunately it seems very young, but everything's degenerative beyond there.  Some of us will degenerate a whole lot quicker than others, so it becomes very unreliable to assign an age if you're over 30.  There's the majority of our lifespan there that we're not very good at.  But, you know…

So, we have to assign a sex; we have to assign an age.  We can then assign a height.  Height's not very useful for separating people, because you have to have a margin of error, and most of the population is between 5 feet and 6 feet two inches tall.  There's not a great difference, so to use stature for identity you've got to be exceptionally tall or exceptionally small, because otherwise you've got a very narrow window.  And then the fourth indicator of biological identity is your race.  But race is such a contentious issue, for a number of reasons.  It's also a fact that we have so much admixture between the different races, so that's very, very difficult. 

From the biological to the personal

Disaster victim identificationSo that's the first thing that we'll produce -- a biological profile that says: he's a male, aged between 25 and 30, 5 feet 6 inches and 5 feet 8 inches in height, white.  That allows you to pigeon-hole the person.  Then what you want is to establish their personal identity.  What information can you take from these remains that will separate two individuals with an identical biological profile?  If you were to put two men the same age, same height, same race together, you still need to be able to separate them.  And when it comes to DVI – which is disaster victim identification – we have four principal means of identification: dental work, DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid.  This is the material inside the nucleus of the cells of living organisms that carries genetic information (see also RNA). , finger prints, and a unique medical condition. That's if you've had a hip replacement and there's a serial number.  Or if you've got a pacemaker – you know, something along those lines that is very individual to you. 

But all that's not really forensic anthropology, you know? Dental records are the odontologist; DNA is the forensic biologist; finger prints are the finger print officer, and unique medical conditions are the pathologist.  What does that leave for the forensic anthropologist to do?  In many ways the anthro is…we're the scrapings at the bottom of the barrel; we know our position in life!  That is, if you can't get identity by any other means come back to the anthro.  What can we then tell?  We can tell whether you're right-handed or left-handed; we can tell whether you're walking with a limp or not…

SA:  What, from tiny bits of bone?

We can tell whether you're right- or left-handedSB:  Depends on which bit of bone you're given.  Absolutely depends.  You've got no control over what it is you're going to be presented with.

SA:  So do you work as a team with all these other people generally, or are you just called in after everybody else?

SB:  Depends on the situation.  So if we're working on a deployment for disaster victim identification at home or abroad then we will be working as part of a team.  If it's a case where the police bring in a bone to you, then you're on your own, because largely they've decided that pathologists can't do anything, they can't get any DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid.  This is the material inside the nucleus of the cells of living organisms that carries genetic information (see also RNA). out of it:  "Let's just take it to the anthro."  And so it's all about identification.  It's about trying to establish biological identity, and then trying to see: is there anything…is there a medical condition here?  If I look at the X-rays of this individual, will it tell me that if I had an ante-mortem X-ray which I can compare it with I could say, "Yup, it's the same person?"  You don't know till you're presented with it what it's going to be.

The story of the bone chip in the washing machine

They found a tiny fragment of boneFor example, we had a case in the west coast of Scotland where a woman went missing, a middle-aged woman, and her husband's plea was that she'd gone off down south.  A friend had been having marital difficulties and she'd gone to hold her friend's hand.  But the trouble was that this woman, every night of her life, had phoned her elderly parents at the same time -- before Coronation Street or whatever it was  – and she'd stopped doing it at that point.  And that change in behaviour is an indication that something's wrong.

So the 'scene of crimes' went to the house; they found some blood in the bathroom; they found a chipped piece of her tooth in the U-bend of the bath.  But it doesn't mean she's dead.  She could have gone into the bathroom, tripped, cracked her chin on the bath…You know, that would have explained it.  But in the washing machine they found her blood on the door; and in the filter of the washing machine they found a tiny fragment of bone that was no bigger than about, oh, 10 millimetres in length, maybe four or five millimetres in width, and that's all they had.  DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid.  This is the material inside the nucleus of the cells of living organisms that carries genetic information (see also RNA). showed it was this missing person -- because it had gone through a not very hot cycle in the washing machine, and it wasn't a biological detergent so the DNA was still there.  So we could tell it was hers.  But the question is: which part of her is it?  Because if it was a little bit of her finger she could still be alive.  But if it's something that's more critical then we're in a different story. 

We've never found the rest of her bodyWe could identify that that tiny, tiny little fragment came from the sphenoid bone, the greater wing of the sphenoid which is to the left hand side of your temple.  Couldn't have come from the right; had to be a left; that's the only place in the whole body that fragment could come from.  So you then confront her husband and say, "Uh, uh, this is a bit of skull, and this is her skull, and it's found in the washing machine…We need an answer for this."  He changed his plea.  And his plea was that she'd come home, they'd had an argument, he'd chased her, she'd run out the back door, tripped on the top step and fallen down the steps, cracked her head on the patio and died.  And he stated that he'd picked her up, which is how her blood and bone got on his clothing, put her in the bath, which is how her blood and her tooth got in the bath, wrapped her in plastic and then dropped her body in the local river.  And we've never found the rest of her body.  All we've ever had of this missing person is this tiny, tiny little fragment of bone.

SA:  And could you make a conviction..?

SB:  Absolutely.  Because he admitted that in fact he had lied.  He admitted at that point that he had wrapped her body in plastic.  The pathologist's testimony in court stated that it couldn't have been a single blow because the bone fragment was dislodged onto his clothing, and then when he put his clothing in the washing machine, that's how the bone got into the filter…. There was a piece of the story missing.  So he was convicted of manslaughter.  He went to appeal; his appeal was denied.

A tiny little bone can actually lead to a convictionSo we've no idea, when you get a tiny, tiny little fragment of bone, it may absolutely go nowhere. But it can actually lead to a conviction for manslaughter.



SA:  Okay, going back to a lot earlier…When you were at St Thomas’, to what extent were there people already with this kind of experience who could teach you, and to what extent have you all along pushed at the boundaries of knowledge?  Did you have teachers who taught you how to read bone to that extent?  Or have you learnt as you've gone along?

There was no formal trainingSB:  A bit of both.  There's always been a very good relationship between anatomy and matters forensic.  And saying that, we've got for the first time, the Anatomical Society… I'm running a symposium for them in January on ‘anatomy and matters forensic’, because there's always been a link, there's been a relationship but it was never a formal relationship.  So if you go back to things like the Buck Ruxton murder case in Edinburgh [refers to an infamous case from 1935 in which Dr Buck Ruckston murdered his common-law wife out of jealousy], it was the anatomy department that identified the fragments of bone that reconstructed the face of his wife, you know?  I mean it's been there, but it was never formal.

And my supervisor for my PhD, her particular area of research was in nerve endings.  So it wasn't really her field but she was interested in bone, so that was very useful.  And she was an exceptionally good anatomist, so we kind of learnt it together in some ways, and tried to keep ahead of what the latest developments were. 
And then when I moved to St Thomas’ Louise Scheuer was there who's also an exceptionally gifted anatomist who was interested in bone.  So I always had strong women around me who had the kind of information that I could almost feed off and develop.  But there was no formal training.  You couldn't do a degree in forensic anthropology.

SA:  Was there even a name to it?

SB:  The Americans had it, I would say, but in the UK no, absolutely not.

SA:  Did you go to America at all to get training?

SB [Laughs] No, no, no, no!

SA:  So you've just learnt…you've found the information as you've need it?

SB:  Yes…yes.  Britain is very good…We're brought up on Blue Peter and Dad's Army, which means that we can build anything out of sticky-back plastic and washing up liquid bottles…And we can beg, borrow, steal, and make anybody believe anything almost, you know?  And that sort of a mentality, in some ways, just helps us to forge ahead.  I had a lot of friends in America that if I had an issue I'd contact them and say, "Look, what d'you think?"  But really within the UK there wasn't anything.

SA:  But how did it become a career then?  Okay, you did your PhD and so on, but when did you find yourself doing practical work?

SB:  In London…


Kosovo: a turning point

SA:  And did you think you were going to be doing this kind of work?

In my heart of hearts I'm an anatomist and the big turning point for me was KosovoSB:  No, I'm an anatomist.  In my heart of hearts I'm an anatomist.  The work just kept coming, and the big turning point for me was Kosovo.  At that point I was working with Peter Vanezis, who was the forensic pathologist in Glasgow, and Peter was deployed with the British forensic team to Kosovo in 1999, very, very shortly after the Serbs retreated.  He found himself faced with a crime scene which was an outhouse, and he had 42 co-mingled bodies very, very badly decomposed -- partly buried, partly burnt, partly gnawed at by dogs.  And he went into it and he said, "I don't know how to do this, but I know somebody who does."  So at that point forensic anthropology became a subject within UK deployment, which it hadn't really been before.

SA:  And you were the first person to do it?

SB:  Yup…yup.  I went out to Kosovo, I would say it was about a week after the main team did.  And it was just…you know…"How the heck do you do this?"

SA:  Had you ever had a mass of bodies or anything like that?

SB:  No nothing as big as that that…

SA:   So had it always been discreet, individual cases?

Faced with a crime sceneSB:  Yes, yes.  One or two little fragments at a time, those sorts of thing.  You know,  a house fire…those sorts of things…But never anything where you were looking at 42 people in an outhouse.  But the people I was working alongside were the anti-terrorist branch, SO13, at the time, and you know these are hugely experienced officers.  And with Peter Vanezis, who's a very, very experienced pathologist, we got through it all together, and sort of learnt it stage by stage.  But Britain is very, very firmly entrenched within its forensic credentials, so that everything was being done to an evidential standard that we knew would stand up to scrutiny.  We were 'belt and braces' on absolutely everything we did.  Partly because we thought, "Someone's going to look at what we're doing and we need to make sure we're doing it properly."

Because I'd been on that first rotation, John Bunn, who was head of SO13 at the time, said, "We need an anthro on every single team that we put out".  And I thought, "Well, I don't know more than three that I can ask in the UK."  So we started bringing in people from outside the UK: George Maat from Holland, for example, became an honorary Brit in the team for the first tour.  Very gradually we've managed to bring more and more people into it.  It's a slow process.

SA:  Have you looked, when you've needed answers, have you looked to people who are doing the same sort of thing abroad? 

SB:  Oh gosh yes. You have to.  It's a very small community, a very, very small community.  And everybody, to some extent, knows everybody else, so it's quite useful as a network.  But in those early days there really wasn't a lot of support.

Forensic anthropology enters the curriculum

Where things really changed in forensic terms was round about the end of the 90s when suddenly forensics became a sexy thing to do, and you had forensic courses being set up in universities up and down the country.  You suddenly had people who were becoming teachers in forensic anthropology who'd never done a case in their life and were learning it one step ahead in the text book.  I have some sympathy with that because in the early stages I wasn't that much different.  And some of those have fallen away because I think there's a much more discerning student out there who thinks, "Well, I want to be taught by somebody who does the job." 

So really within, I would say, the last 10 to 15 years there has been a huge change in the professionalism of the discipline.  And of course international and national judicial scrutiny is such that we have to be able to do what we're doing – we can't play at it any more.  We just simply can't.


A remarkable grandmother

SA:  Okay, I want to return to the Kosovo story and your experiences since then, but before that I want some more information about your early life.  You say your grandmother was a great influence in your life, so I want to know about her.  And I also want to know about how much support you got from your parents and how easy it was as a woman going forward.  But let's start with your grandmother – why was she so significant in your life?

SB:  That was my father's mother and I spent a lot of time with her.  She was one of these amazing ladies who, regardless of your age, brings herself down to your age.  So she could interact with a four-year-old as simply as she could to an 18-year-old, as simply as she could to a 50-year-old.  And she always had time, which I think is the most important thing any grandparent can ever have.  It's time.  Because your parents are so busy.  She was that little one step removed. 

When we were in the West Coast my parents would take a week's holiday, and they'd perhaps go off to Glasgow, shopping for Christmas or whatever it would be, and my grandmother would come and stay.  And she wouldn't run the hotel for the week because it was a big hotel, but she'd be there largely as our babysitter.  So I got to share a bed with granny and such things.  And she was just the most adorable woman, she really was.  She died when I was 15 and she knew she was dying – she was dying of lung cancer because she'd smoked the most horrendous number of cigarettes throughout her life.

She was the one who told me that she was going to die, and I remember being very upset about it.  But she did what I think is probably one of the cruellest things that anyone can ever do! [Laughing] She said, "But I'll never leave you.  For the rest of your life I'm going to sit on your shoulder.  And any time that you need to ask me something, or you need an opinion, you've just got to listen and you'll know what's the right thing to do."

SA:  And has it…

SB:  Oh it's the bane of my life!  [Laughs] Because there are so many times I've wanted to do something, and I find myself turning my head [looks at her shoulder]  and I think, "No, she wouldn't want me to do that."  And you know, there are decisions I've made throughout my life where I've thought, "No, she wouldn't be proud of me if I did that; she would be really cross if I actually said that; that's not the right way to go."  She has done that the entire way through… And I know that when the time comes I've actually got to face her, so I've got to get it right!  I couldn't do that to my grandchildren.  What an awful burden to give them [laughing].  So she's stayed there permanently [looking at shoulder again]. But she was a very wise, pithy old lady and it left a huge, huge hole when she died.

She's seen me through all sorts of things, you know.  There have been some horrendously difficult times, but she's still there.  I have to throw salt over my right shoulder -- I can't throw it over my left because my granny sits there. [We both laugh]


A woman in the field

SA:  As a girl doing science, have you found there's a glass ceiling?

SB:  No, never.  I can honestly say never.  Any time that I've worked with the police…

Put yourself back into Kosovo, for example – you're out there with a team of 18 men; you're the only woman; there's no toilet, so when you want to do basic bodily functions you've got 18 men in the team who've all got to look the other direction.  Never once has any of them made me feel uncomfortable because I'm the female part of the team.  They are, in many ways, more protective.  Also, I find that when you put a team like that together you need a mother figure on it.  One of the most disruptive things you can do for policemen is to have a young, blonde, available female on the team – that's the most disruptive thing going.  If you're going to have that you also need a mother figure who says, "Stop your nonsense; go to bed, you know, just go now".  They respect you for that and they'll protect you.

SA:  So you've found that role has sort of fallen to you?

SB:  Oh absolutely. They want to talk about their wives; they want to talk about their families; they want to talk about the things they see, how they feel about it.  They don't want to do it to someone that they might find, you know, young and attractive.  They want to talk to someone who's not going to be a threat to them.

SA:  And how have you found that?

Being a woman hasn't made any differenceSB:  No problem at all.  I think it's a huge compliment that they're prepared to [talk]. Because, you know, policemen are not notoriously trusting people – they don't give personal information very often.  And the fact that they will do so, I think that's a huge compliment.

But they've never in any negative way treated me differently because I'm a woman.  And coming to Dundee, being a woman hasn't made any difference whatsoever.  If you can do the job and achieve the goals, then you're the same as everybody else.

Painstaking search for evidence

SA:  Okay.  Going back to Kosovo then, when you first found yourself in Kosovo you were probably right at the limits of your skills, you were facing a completely new scene.  What were the tasks and what were the challenges?

SB:  Well, the first challenge was the first site, which was the one I was brought out for.  These 42 men had been herded into an outhouse.  They'd been separated into two rooms, and the gunmen had stood at the door of each room and sprayed it with Kalashnikov fire.  The chap who managed to get into the corner first was a survivor, and it's important for an indictment that you have one.  The gunmen's accomplices stood at the windows, threw in straw, threw in a combustant and torched the place, so that when we arrived all the bodies were sort of huddled into one area because they'd been trying to get away from the gunmen.  There had been six months of decomposition, so there was really very little recognisable soft tissue left.  "Big boiling masses of maggots" is the only way to describe it.  Partly burnt because the building had burnt.  The asbestos tiles from the roof had fallen on them, so they were partly buried, and dogs had gone in and taken away bits because it was a food source. 

Big boiling masses of maggotsOur job was to go into that outhouse and document the evidence.  If this is going to be an indictment site against Milosevic, then the witness statement – because we've got one – has to match up with the forensic evidence, so that that can then be presented to the court.  If what the witness is saying is not borne out by the evidence, or vice versa, then, you know, that's not going to be a site that's likely to lead to conviction. So we literally had to start at the door of the building, on our knees, sifting finger-tip through every single piece of rubble that we could. 

Once you got to what was a part of a body, or you could perhaps outline as a whole body, then you would lift it as such and take it away and do the postmortem on what was left.  Again, it's about establishing: is this male? Is this female?  How old?  How tall?  Anything about the individual – is there any clothing?  Is there any documentation?  And literally working your way through that room until you've completely cleared it – bearing in mind that there might be explosive ordnance in there as well.

SA:  I was going to say, what were the dangers?

SB:  We had an explosive device left for us at that scene…You have to make things funny, and it's not funny at the expense of the deceased people, but it's what keeps you going in these difficult situations.  There was a tree next to where the crime scene was, and we'd use that tree, shall we say, for purposes of private shelter when one needed to take care of bodily functions.  The first person to do that was one of the SO13 anti-terrorist branch explosive ordnance officers.  He came back absolutely beaming from ear to ear, and he said, "I've found a device!" 

I've found a device!They'd planted a device in the ground near the tree with a trip wire, so that when we walked down the path it would have set the tripwire off and the explosion would have happened.  And he was so delighted, a) because he'd found something to do, but secondly because he'd actually been relieving himself on to the device and he was so impressed that he could still stop peeing in mid-flow at his age!  [We both laugh] Which I think says a lot about ordnance people…they've got to have a little screw missing! 

So we had to blow that up.  And, you know, we had grenades that were placed underneath bodies with the pin removed so that when you lifted the body the grenade goes off.  You'd find razor blades, hypodermic needles in pockets, things that would cause you probably no great distress but were enough to inflict pain.

Coping mechanisms

SA:  Okay, there are two questions here.  First of all, before you went in how much did you know of the politics of the situation, and the fact of the massacre?  And how did you deal with that as a human being, witnessing such horror and such obvious cruelty – how d'you psyche yourself up for that?

SB:  I knew about as much as anybody else did who watched the news, is the honest truth.  So I didn't know much more than would have been debated on Newsnight or whatever.  I was educated, I was informed in it, but certainly not an expert.

SA:  How did you prepare yourself?

SB:  Well I didn't know what to expect, and that's probably the easiest thing, I would say -- just to go in and trust the people that you're with, that they wouldn't put you into a situation that was going to cause you personal harm.

SA:  But mental anguish, that's what I'm talking about?

You need to have a clinical detachmentSB: Well, by that point, you see, I'd probably done 10, 15 years worth of forensic work.  I might not have seen it on that sort of scale, but it's the same principle.  And to work in forensics you need to have a clinical detachment, because you're there to retrieve evidence, you're not there to give an opinion; you're not there to be affected by it.  And if you do become affected by it you become inefficient in your objectivity.  So there is an element that… you actually close down.  You close down emotionally.  Where it kind of breaks through is when you find yourself really tired, when you're really hot -- you know, when there are other stresses on you.  Then sometimes it can boil over.  But the majority of the time it doesn't.

SA:  But did you teach yourself that from the very beginning, when you first had to go to a gruesome scene?

I've never had the flashbacksSB:  You see I think anatomists learn it gradually.  When you're exposed to the human body, and you're exposed to dissecting the human body, and then the next thing…The first case I went to was a micro-light pilot who went down off Inverbervie.  He was a decapitated torso.  You know, I did that with my supervisor, so there was that sort of gradual involvement.  And as you're gradually exposed to something you become more and more able to cope with things that are more and more difficult, really.  So I can say, with my hand on my heart, I've never had the flashbacks, the lack of sleep…it's just not there.  But the thing that you don't forget is that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, you don't know when it will hit you.  It may never hit you.  It may be tomorrow; it may be a month; it may be a year; it may be 10 years, so you have to be aware of it.  But I can honestly say it's never really…I've never brought it away from the scene.

SA:  What d'you think is most threatening to your equilibrium?  I mean in Kosovo did you have the relatives around, and did they unnerve you?

The last thing you want to do is add to their griefSB:  We didn't on that particular one because we were so close to the time when the Serbs had retreated that the refugees hadn't started coming back into the country.  But they did very, very quickly after that, and so by the time we'd been there a week we were starting to get onlookers.  These were the relatives, neighbours, friends, and that puts an extra dimension, because that means…I mean, not that we don't take care, but it means that you must take double the amount of care, because these are the people who were displaced; these are the people who are grieving, and the last thing you want to do is add to their grief.  So you take on board the responsibilities of your own job and the added responsibility of having to deal with people who've gone through things we can only imagine – you know, horrendous things.  And much of the time it's very humbling.  They felt that they had to give you something, so they'd come with a cup of coffee, or they would come with cold water, and that was almost more difficult because they were thanking you for what you were doing…And, you know, that just didn't equate terribly well.  We never met any hostility from families, ever.  Only ever support.  And they find it difficult to interact with us because a) the language problems, and b) we were actually moving the remains of their families.

The “man who lost his entire family”

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But the one that will stick in my mind for ever was a man who lost his entire family.  It was a rocket-propelled grenade that took out his trailer and on the trailer was his wife, his mother, his sister-in-law and their eight children.  And they were all literally blown apart by an RPG.  He retrieved as much as he could of them and buried them, which is a tremendously brave thing to do…you know, to be able to go round to pick up what's left of the parts of your family, from an 18-month-old baby through to your twin 14-year-old sons.  It's a huge, huge amount of self-containment.  I mean, just outrageous. 

And then we come along and say, "Look, the UN has identified this as a potential indictment site, we'd like to exhume what it was that you buried.  And he said, "Yes.  Because what I want more than anything else is I need 11 body bags back, because I need to put every single one of my family into the ground with a name.  Because it's the only way God can find them…At the moment they're all together, and I need God to find my daughter; and I need God to find my wife; I need God to find my sister-in-law…"
It's very humbling

What we brought in filled a body bag and a half – that was all we could find.  And so there was a huge pressure. I'd actually, at that point, sent everybody out of the mortuary for the day and said, "I've got to do this one myself", because juvenile identification is my area of expertise.  So I laid out 12 sheets along the floor of the mortuary, and going through the material I had I could start to separate little bits out into… you know, ‘that can't be the five-year-old, so is it the eight-year-old, or is it the six-year-old?  No it's got to be the six-year-old."  And by the time I'd done all that, we had a little bit that I was absolutely happy represented each of the 11 people. 

But I had two 14-year-old boys, and all I had present of them were their arms, and they were pretty much bone by that point – there was very little tissue left on them.  And I couldn't separate them because they were both male, they were both the same age.  One of them had a Mickey Mouse vest attached to it and I said to the policeman, "Go and ask the father which of his children had a Mickey Mouse vest.  Don't ask him which of the twins, ask him which of his children."  And he came back with the name of one of the twins, and I thought, that's all we need.  So I could then start to separate the twins as well.

We gave him 12 body bags back at the end of that day – the twelfth bag was what we couldn't separate
.  And it would be very tempting just to split it between the bags on the principle, you know, ‘he'll never know’.  But that's not the point.  She [meaning her grandmother on her shoulder] won't allow me to do that because at the end of the day the man wants to be sure that in that bag is his wife; in that bag is his daughter…

The importance of reliable evidence

SA:  It mattered what he felt.

Every bit of evidence you've recovered can be discountedSB:  Absolutely.  It mattered to him, but it also matters to the courts because the courts could come along and say, "Right, open up that body bag", and if what's in that body bag doesn't equate to the named missing person you've said it is, then you're not a credible witness, and every bit of evidence you've recovered can be discounted.  You can't afford to do that.

SA:  So your task is very clear?

SB:  Oh it's clear, very very clear.  So we gave him back 12 body bags.  And it was the most humbling experience of my life to hear him say "Thank you."  You think, "God, for what he's been through this is the absolute and utter least that we could do." 

There were two times in fact we got personally involved.  That was one of them.  Because the local authorities were a bit unwilling to issue a death certificate on one of the children, and we really stood our ground.  We said, "There's no way you're issuing 10 death certificates. You've got to issue 11."  And we managed to persuade them.  One can argue that we shouldn't get involved, but it's too exceptional a case, you can't not.

SA:  So are there temptations in most of the cases you do to overstep the mark, to find yourself doing something a little bit extra for the family, a little bit extra for the police, or getting involved, as you did then in asking for that death certificate, or is it very clear the limits of your responsibility? 

You can't afford to be influenced by emotionSB:  It is generally very clear, because most of the time we don't have involvement with the family, for a very good reason – you can't afford to be influenced by their emotion and their situation.  So the majority of our work is in clinical isolation.  And you go the full 110 percent on everything you do, whether it's for the police, the courts, the family, whoever it is, it doesn't matter.  You go as far as you possibly can.  But when the family element comes in then you do end up, in many ways I think, going that extra little bit that you possibly shouldn’t.  But you can't not.

The responsibility to look after yourself

SA:  How do you protect yourself?  In a place like that you were probably working very long hours with little sleep – how the hell do you look after yourself?

SB:  You have to look after yourself, because if you don't you'll bring the team down.  So if you're the only anthro on the team and you haven't looked after yourself and they need an anthro, then you shut that team down.  So there's a huge responsibility to look after yourself – to make sure that if you cut yourself you deal with it properly;  that if you get a tummy upset you deal with it properly, you drink enough water.  You look after yourself in terms of cleanliness, food, water and rest.

There's a huge responsibility to look after yourselfWe also have a buddy system where you take responsibility for somebody else, who equally takes responsibility for you.  If you start to see erratic behaviour then you can pull them aside and say, "We need to talk."  You'll do that for them, and they'll do that for you as well.

SA:  And is there scope to look after yourselves – can you take rest?  If you're burnt out one day can you take time off?

SB:    Oh yes, it's part of the role of the senior officer in charge as well -- welfare.  We didn't have that in the early stages of Kosovo, so yeah, we did work far, far too long, far too many hours.  And it became clear that people were going to burn out quickly, and the senior officer said, "No, no, no. Today we're doing nothing.  Today we're going to sleep late.  We're going to eat well.  You can read a book.  You can phone home.  You can do what you like, but we're not working today." 

That becomes very, very important, but you can't always do that in all circumstances -- it depends on the nature of the deployment.  If you're going in somewhere that's particularly dangerous you may have a very, very tight time schedule, and then you haven't got the luxury of saying, "We're not going to work today." 

SA:  Have you ever felt that you were close to the edge?  Or are you good at spotting it and looking after yourself?

SB:  Um…I don't take anything too seriously in that regards.  That's not fair to say I don't take it seriously.  But I don't let things get on top of me.  It's work…

“A huge adrenalin rush”

SA:  Is it exciting?

SB:  Oh yes!

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SA: What keeps you going?

SB:  It's the detective in all of us, isn't it?  You know, we all like Morse and Taggart and those things because there's a mystery and it's got to be solved.  Our mystery is: who was this person?  And when you get that solved, it's a huge adrenalin rush.  You think, "Yup, someone's got their husband back.  Someone's got their wife, their daughter (whatever it is)… I've made a difference."  Even if it's not going to make a difference to the courts, it'll make a difference to families, it'll make a difference to somebody.  And that's grand…

I mean working in a big team in Kosovo is a bit like Big Brother.  You take a bunch of people that you wouldn't normally choose to be with; you throw them into a really difficult situation – you know, you throw stresses at them, you throw lack of sleep at them, you throw lack of food at them, you make them work together.  And yep, there are times when you will shout at somebody and lose your temper, but in 10 minutes you know that you've got to live with them again so you get over it.  It can be quite an experience, I have to say!  But the camaraderie that you develop is hugely, hugely strong.  And these are the people you can talk to, because when nobody else will understand, they do

The police brought some counsellors in in Kosovo.  And…I mean, bless their hearts, they tried!  But they never understood why we couldn't take them seriously.  Because they'd never worked with us, they didn't know what we were doing.

SA:  So is this where the buddy thing came in – that they suddenly realised you needed someone who knew the situation?

SB:  Yeah, absolutely.  So you'll sit down at night with a beer and you'll just talk.  You'll go out, just a couple of you, not the whole group, and just go and talk somewhere, walk, you know.  But to have a counsellor come in and say, "Tell me how you feel."  You think, "Oh for goodness sake, I've been here for 12 weeks – how the hell d'you think I feel?"  So…sometimes it can be a little bit counterproductive if you haven't got the right counsellors.  [We both laugh at the thought.]

SA:  It must be hell for them too, having to ask such banal questions really!

SB:  Yes, yes.  When they brought us all in for counselling one time we all had to have a little name tag as to who we were.  And one of the police officers had written a name tag out for our anatomy technician, our mortuary technician, that said "Alf", which stood for Annoying Little (and I won't use the F word!).  Of course, this wasn't his name, but every time the counsellor would say, "Alf, tell me how you feel," the room would just completely disintegrate!  And the poor counsellor lost control because he didn't know what it was about.  Because we were such a tight-knit team taking care of each other, and they were outsiders.  [We both laugh]

SA:  That's a lovely story!

SB:  He's remained Alf ever since – to this day he's Alf!

SA:  And he's okay with that, is he?

An unspoken ruleSB:  Yes, yes, course he is because he was in on it! 

SA:  In buddying each other, how did they choose?

SB:  It just happens.  It's almost an unspoken rule, but when you go out there you look after other people.  And if you look after others, they'll look after you in turn. 

A moment of weakness

SA: And can you admit weakness at that point?

SB:  Oh absolutely.  You know, we had an officer out with us one time… It was a fairly sort of classic macho male situation…We had been exhuming bodies and we were in the middle of a field doing it, and it was miles away from anywhere so we couldn't take the bodies back to the mortuary, we had to do the post mortems on a sheet laid out on the ground in the field.  This was a group of women and children that had been massacred, and the gunmen had separated them away from the men and they'd used the children as target practice, so, you know, they were really in a dreadful state. 

We'd just exhumed the body of a little girl, and she was still wearing her sleep suit and she was still wearing her little red wellies.  And one of the officers made a mistake – the little girl was about the same age as one of his own and he put his daughter's face in his own mind on to this. I was working with the pathologist, and I looked up and I thought, "Why's there a row of policemen looking at me?"  And I could see that behind them was this officer who was falling apart -- it was the men's way of giving him his moment of privacy and his time to get over it and shield him.

So what I did, I took my gloves off, took my suit down and tied it round my waist, went round the back of him, threw my arms round his neck, gave him a huge hug.  He broke apart, and he could then talk to me afterwards.  So, you know, you've just got to look out for it…it's there.

SA:  And he was okay?

SB:  He was fine by then.  We all went back to work.  But you know, they gave him his time first of all, and then, once he'd sort of got that under control then he could talk about it.  And we sat and we drank beer that evening, and by the following morning he said, "Och, I shouldn't have done that, I'll never do that again, because it's not my daughter."  I said, "No, it's not," you know?

SA:  But the easiest thing in the world for the image just to slip through…

SB:  Oh absolutely.  You see, it's what you can't predict.  You can't predict that.

SA:  And nothing like that has ever happened to you, as a mother as well?

SB:  No.  No.  No.  No.

SA:  Did you find yourself just as able to be clinically detached with a bunch of women and children, knowing what had happened to them, as you did with the men?

SB:  Yes, yes, it makes no difference.  You don't involve yourself in the situation, you just don't.  You can't afford to.

“No two bodies will decompose in the same way”

SA:  I know Bill Bass started the Body Farm in Tennessee after realising how little is known about how people decompose.  He made a massive mistake once – he got everything right: sex, age etc.  But he was out by about 130 years as to when this body had died!  How easy is it to date things?

SB:  It's not at all easy.  It depends on the situation.  It depends whether you're looking at soft tissue or just hard tissue.  A lot of the techniques we've got now are looking at things like comparisons of isotopes.  So, for example, because of the nuclear testing that we've had from the 1940s onwards you can map the levels of man-made radio-isotopes. And if you can detect those levels in the bone you can have a fairly good idea of how old those bones may be. 

In many ways it's very lab-based -- to get close to a correct answer you have to be lab based.  When you're physically in the field just looking at a bone you can be miles wrong.  And it's the classic thing, you know -- if I had a pound for every time a policeman said, "Well, how long's he been dead then?"  Because they desperately want it to be more than 70 years so that you don't have to investigate it, and that doesn't affect police budgets!  But you know, it’s still very, very difficult…

And it's almost that the more information we get, the more we realise just how difficult it is.  No two bodies will decompose in the same way, and at the same rate.  You can have two bodies that are literally six feet apart and they will decompose in entirely different manners.

SA:  Why?

SB:  It could be the amount of fat on the body.  It could be the drugs they were taking, or the medication.  It could be the type of clothing they're wearing.  Absolutely anything.  It could be that one has a particular odour that is more attractive to flies than the other.  So by knowing that, in many ways it hasn't helped us solve many of the problems, it's just made us more aware of how difficult it is to decide how long someone's been dead.

SA:  You've talked about Kosovo, but you were also involved in Rwanda and other things…

SB:  Rwanda I didn't do, I was pregnant during Rwanda so I got out of Rwanda. But Sierra Leone, that was horrible, absolutely horrible.  It was 1999 as well.


A nightmare experience

SA:  What was so specially horrible about Sierra Leone?

SB:  Everything.  First of all we were working for the United Nations, and that in itself, I have to say, is a nightmare.  They couldn't organise anything even simple, quite frankly. It was a UN mission to retrieve the bodies of four soldiers that had been shot at a place called Rogberry Junction.  There'd been a skirmish between the UN forces and the rebels.  And for whatever reason, they wanted to send out a British team.  So there was myself and a couple of officers from the MET, and there were also some Brits that worked for the UN and who'd been in Bosnia.  So there was kind of split in the team as well, because some of us were Kosovo, some of us were Bosnia.

SA:  So politics had crept in?

SB:  Oh yeah. I personally couldn't have cared less about the politics, but it was the people who had been in Bosnia that felt they, and they alone, should have been the ones to deal with Kosovo.  I never understood that, I have to say.  But it meant that the team was a little bit fractured from the start.  And the UN had told us that they wanted these bodies repatriated, they wanted to get them home to the families – which is very reasonable.  But because we'd worked for the Foreign Office, the FO told us what they were actually looking at.  There had been a report that one of the soldiers had had his hands tied, and if his hands had been tied it wasn't a natural death, it was a war crime potentially.  They had the rebel leader in custody, and with the UN Tribunal for Yugoslavia on-going, it would have been easy to extend that to bring in Sierra Leone if there was evidence of war crimes. 

So we had the UN telling us one reason for our mission and the FO telling us what the real reason was.  And the FO at that point – we informed them that the UN had asked us to deploy – and they said, "We'd rather you didn't, because the security there is such a problem."  And I said, "Well, we've been asked.  I'd like to go.  It's a British team and I think we need to support them."  They said, "Okay, but when you land we're going to have special forces meet you, we're going to take you off to the British Ambassador and you're going to have discussions behind the scenes."   So that was fine.  That was the three of us that had come in with the FO.

A family of vultures perched on the roofSo when we arrived in Freetown, we were met by the UN security chap, a huge chap, absolutely no neck, he looked like a fridge with a head on top!  And he said, "Right, tomorrow morning you are going to get in the helicopters; we're going to fly you out to the site, the helicopters will drop you there and leave."  And I sort of stuck my hand in the air and said, "Why are the helicopters leaving?"  And he said, "They're too much of a target".  And I said, "Well I'm sorry, but if the helicopters are a target, so are we!  What's the rush?  These soldiers, God bless them, are dead.  Why is it so important to rush to get them back?"  "Well we need to repatriate them…"  And I thought, "Damn it, if you're not prepared to tell me the truth to my face for why we're going out there to get those bodies, then how am I supposed to trust you with our security, quite frankly?"  So at that point I said, "Well actually, it's not going to happen." 

He absolutely exploded at this point.  "What the hell d'you mean it's not going to happen?!"  And I said, "Well we've got a meeting with the British Ambassador when you've finished with us, and we'll take it from there."  He was absolutely furious with us.  If he could have reached across the table and slapped me, I think he would have done.  And of course part of the team had no idea that this had been set up with the British Ambassador, because they'd come in with the UN.  And they were being fed the UN side of the story, and we were being fed the real story.  So we went off to the British Ambassador's residence and were fully briefed there, and got our security on board.  And we were a whole lot happier.

And yeah, the bodies did come back.  There was no evidence that they'd had their hands tied, so at the end of the day the bodies were repatriated.  But it was the huge politics that you had to go through… The UN had a brand-spanking new mortuary, in Sierra Leone, absolutely brand-spanking new, never been used.  And the colonel in charge of it was so upset that he wasn't allowed to run the investigation that he refused to allow us to use his mortuary.  So we're there with the UN, and we're not allowed to use the UN mortuary…

SA:  And what facilities did you use?

SB:  We had to use the mortuary that was associated with the local hospital in Freetown, and it was a little shack, a little tin shed round the back of the hospital.  It was right next door to the tuberculosis ward, so you could hear everything being coughed up next door!  There was no running water, there was no electricity, there were open sewers across the front of the door, and we had a family of vultures perched on the roof.

SA: [Laughs].  What conditions!  Very romantic…

SB:  Oh it was horrendous.  Isn't this just like CSI?!  And the pathologist, bless his heart, was also a surgeon in the hospital.  So he'd come out of surgery, come and do his postmortems in this tin shed -- no aprons, no overalls, he would just take his jacket off,  no gloves, AIDS a serious problem – he'd do his postmortem, wash his hands in a bucket of water and go back into surgery.  Those were the conditions under which they were working, and then so were we.  And of course when we left Sierra Leone we left him every bit of kit we could possibly leave.  It was Christmas and birthdays altogether for him – he had gloves, and he had aprons and he had overalls.

SA:  What were the other difficulties of the situation there?  Was it the heat, was it the…?

One of the quickest exhumations in historySB:  It was a number of things.  The heat was horrendous.  But it was also the fact that  the rebels were active in the area, and they would have desperately liked to get British  hostages, because the British forces deployed in Sierra Leone at the time were preventing the rebels getting into Freetown, so to get a British hostage would have been great.  And to get a female British hostage would have been fantastic.  Because there's so much more you can do to a female hostage than you can do to a male hostage that will impact on the psyche of everybody involved.

SA:  Did you feel that?  Were you aware of that all the time, or did it leave your mind when you were working?

SB:  Yes, well, we weren't allowed to go by car anywhere.  We literally had to go by helicopter or plane wherever we needed to go.  And when the bodies were being recovered they sent gunships to patrol up and down the edge of the jungle to prevent the rebels coming out to take hostages.  And, you know, there was an armed guard.
It was one of the quickest exhumations in history.  Four bodies inside a few hours, bless them!  We didn't get all of them back, but you know, those are the kind of circumstances where you cannot, for the safety of everybody, be too pedantic.

The 2004 tsunami

SA:  Weren't you also involved in the tsunami?  What were the big challenges there?

SB:  Getting everybody to play nicely with each other was the first big problem -- everybody internationally.  We had a situation where the Thai authorities were totally overwhelmed with the situation.  They'd never anticipated they would need the kind of mechanisms in place to deal with something like this.  So we had a home country that was totally unprepared – very welcoming, you know, couldn't have done more, but at the end of the day still unprepared -- and an influx of, I think it was, 32 international DVI teams.  And the French will not always get on easily with the Germans, who will not always easily get on with the Italians, who will not always easily get on with the Spanish, or whatever the admixture may be. 

It took a long time for the politics to sort itself outYou know, you have these teams that have been sent out to identify their own deceased and bring them home, and you can't do that.  You've actually got to work through everybody to find out whose deceased are whose.  It took a long time for the politics to sort itself out, and that was one of the most difficult and trying things, I would say -- just getting the machinery rolling.  Once it was rolling it worked extremely well, but it was a real challenge when you've got over 5,000 dead in Thailand alone to try and coordinate all of that.  And in that intensity of heat…The bodies were decomposing whilst you're trying to sort things out.  And as they're decomposing you know you're losing information, and it's a real race against time to try to get everybody on board.  So it was the logistics that were more of an issue for Thailand than anything else really.

SA:  So what did you do when you got there…Who was bringing the bodies in and where were you actually positioned?

There was no documentationSB: They were coming in from anywhere and everywhere… I flew out on New Year's eve and by the time we got out there the situation was that people were collecting the dead… You know, teams would go out to a beach, clear the number of bodies on the beach, and take them in a lorry to the temples.  So all the bodies would have been taken to the nearest temple, which is usually in the middle of a town.  And the bodies were left at the gate of the temple, so that you didn't know where they'd been found; you didn't know whether they'd all been found in the same area, there was no documentation coming in with them.

SA:  So a lot of information was being lost?

SB:  Gone, absolutely gone.  People were just trying to help by bringing the bodies in, but by not saying, "Right, these bodies have all come from this area of Thailand.".  You couldn't narrow it down and say, "It's not likely to be these people because they were down in a different resort."  So literally you had to start from scratch.  All the bodies were coming in, they were being laid out in rows outside the temples, and they were decomposing in the sun.  You had to keep the flies away; you had to keep the rodents away.  It was not great for me, I have to say!  And you were literally working in the open air. 

SA:  And what were you actually doing?  I mean, what are the first things you do when you've got a body that's been washed up or whatever?

You had to keep the flies awaySB:  One of the first things they did, which was something that shouldn't have been done, but again it was done with the best of faith, was that everybody who was brought into the temples, they'd photographed them.  And they'd put all these photographs onto a computer so that families would come in and scroll through all the pictures of bloated, decomposing bodies looking for a daughter, a son, you know, whatever family member. 

And you will never identify them that way.  In the Bali bombing, they established that 50 percent of those that were identified visually were incorrect.

SA:  Really?

SB:  Yes. So we can't rely on families to get it right.  First of all they've never seen you dead before, and you look very different when you're dead than when you're alive.  And the families are under so much stress and pressure -- some families are so desperate to get a body that if it's close enough they'll convince themselves it's the person.  And we can't do that.  We can't do that for judicial purposes, but we can't do it for the families either, because if we get it wrong there's another family that's being denied that body. 

SA:  So did you have to start again?

So the first thing we did was to stop the visual identificationsSB:  They all had to start from scratch.  There were a couple of bodies that had been released…in fact quite a few had been released and we had to stop them at the airport and say, "No, we need to take this back and prove it."  And a number of them had been shown to be wrong.  Trying to persuade families that although they had visually identified it, they were mistaken, was actually very difficult to do.  So the first thing we did was to stop the visual identifications.  And then it’s a simple slow process of going through, establishing is it male, is it female?  How old are they?  How tall are they?  Did they have any clothing?  Did they have any documentation on them?  And just building up a dossier for every single body.  Charting the teeth, photographing the teeth, taking the DNA{end-title} stands for deoxyribonucleic acid.  This is the material inside the nucleus of the cells of living organisms that carries genetic information (see also RNA). {end-texte}DNA samples, taking the finger print samples. 

And that's only a very small part of the whole operation, because in the country where these people have come from they're doing the same thing.  There are family liaison officers collecting information from the missing person's dentist, from the missing person's doctor, getting the DNA from the families, going round to the houses getting the DNA from toothbrushes, from hair brushes, lifting finger prints.  Getting all the antemortem information so that we can then, in a matching centre, compare with the postmortem information.  It's a huge operation.

SA:  And what was the difference between your job and, say, that of the pathologist?

SB:  There wasn't a requirement in many ways for a full post-mortem because it was fairly obvious what these people had died of.  In many ways the real heroes of the entire operation were the dentists and the fingerprint officers, because that's how most of the identifications were done.  Where anthropology is coming in is now, because bits of bodies are being found, but of course they're fragmented and they're skeletal.  There was very little for anthropology to do at the outset.  My major role in many ways became logistical support…just trying to get things done, different groups together, meetings, committees – you know, all those kind of things that I absolutely hate!  But at the end of the day it's what you have to do to get the ball rolling.


The rodent factor

SA:  One very obvious question…What has happened to your abhorrence of rodents, because you're working in places where they must be around?

SB:  It's still there.

SA:  So what d'you do?

SB:  Panic! [Laughs]  It's awful. When I was working in St Thomas’, my office was on the river, we were on the Thames, and we used to get these tiny, tiny little water mice coming in.  So they used to put poison round the walls, and one day I went into my office and there was a dead mouse on the floor.  I had walked past it…I could have stood on it, okay?  I had to phone my technician, because I couldn't walk past it again, I could not walk past that dead mouse.  I said, "John, get up here now!"  He thought something horrendous had happened.  He arrives in my office, I'm shaking like a leaf, I've got tears running down my face.  He said, "Dear God, what's happened?"  I said, "A mouse, John!"  And he said, "But it's dead!"  I said, "I don't care."  It's that level of paranoia that has now set in.  It's ridiculous…I know, I know!

SA:  But…you must be dealing with all kinds of horrid things, with slime and maggots…

It just feels like little butterfliesSB:  Oh but they're fine.  I don't mind maggots all.  They're great on a cold day – you can put your hand into them and they keep you warm.  Fantastic, you get a really warm maggot mass; warms your hands up. [There’s obviously a look of horror on my face]  They don't eat you!

SA:  So you put your hands into maggots on a cold day and what does it feel like?

SB:  Well, it just feels like little butterflies fluttering over you.  But oh, it's wonderfully warm.  That's why you get maggots 'boiling', they sort of spill out, because the centre of a maggot mass gets too hot, so they actually migrate away from the heat.  Wonderfully warm.

SA:  But the mouse flummoxed you?  And you can't do anything about it?

SB:  Can’t do anything about it.  But what's really nice is that the men in Kosovo in particular knew it wasn't a silly fear, it was a real, ingrained one.  I remember once we were digging down through an area known as Podjevo meat market, because it was where the animals used to be slaughtered, and one of the ploys was that they would murder the Albanians, put them in a grave, and put something like a dead horse or a dead cow on the top, so that as you dug down you could smell the decomposing flesh and you'd get to it and think, "Oh it's a dead horse", and not go any further.  And I remember we were digging down in Podjevo and one of the officers looked at me and said, "Stay!  Just stay".  What he'd hit was a rat's nest.  As he dug further all the rats shot off into their tunnels and holes, and as soon as they were away he said, "Okay, you can come in now." 

It wasn't a silly fear, it was a real, ingrained oneSo they looked after me in that regard.  One of our mortuaries in Kosovo was a disused grain store, so the soldiers would go in in the morning and make a helluva noise with everything, just to get rid of all the rats for me before we'd go in.  And then I was fine.

SA:  Going back to the very early days when you first did anatomy, how difficult did you find it going into that world?  Were you ever squeamish apart from the rats?

SB:  I need to explain also that I had a Saturday job when I was at school, in a butcher's shop, and so from the age of 13 I'd dealt with cold red meat.  And never been squeamish about carcasses hanging up in a fridge, or cutting up meat, cutting up liver, opening hearts.  It's just what I did every single Saturday.  And I loved it, absolutely loved it.  So there was never a moment when I thought, "I can't cope with this."  It's natural.

We're all fascinated by bodiesI mean, to be able to dissect a human body, to be able to look underneath the skin is the most fascinating thing.  It's a real privilege to be able to do it – to see what you're like inside!  Absolutely fantastic.  There's nothing ghoulish about it.  We're all fascinated by bodies.

The meaning of life

SA:  What has it done for you, engagement with that side of life, what has it done to your attitude towards life, towards the ‘meaning of life’ questions?

So many things don't seem important any moreSB:  My husband and I went to school together.  We've known each other since I was 17 and he was 18 so we've been together a very long time. He was actually born in Chicago, but brought up in Inverness. We went to university together too, and he studied anatomy as well.  But he was much smarter than I was because he learnt very quickly that if you want to have an income that you can live off, you don't become an academic!  So he went and did finance and business administration and such things. 

But it means that he understands what I do, because he's done the anatomy and he's been there all the way through.  So he's got a very good way of dealing with me.  When I get home after being away he'll not question me at all; he won't even bring it up.  It'll be, "How are you? You're fine."  And three or four days later I'll start to tell him stories, and then he'll wheedle bits of information out of me.  He's a very good listener.  And then we'll just sit and talk about it.  But it'll take a few days. 

You see the frailty of lifeBut the bottom line becomes that so many things don't seem important any more.  I don't care if the floor doesn't get hoovered.  I don't care if there's dust on the mantelpiece.  It doesn't matter.  Absolutely doesn't matter in the world if there's a scratch on the car.  I don't care.  I care that my children get a big hug and a kiss every night before they go to bed, because you've just dealt with 20 children who will never have that again.  So you go home and you hold your children tighter, there's no doubting that.  You value your family much, much more than you ever would, because you see the frailty of life.  And that's what's important.  The material side of things…fortunately I've never ever been driven by money anyway.  But it just doesn't matter. 

The effect on her family

SA:   Talking about your family, how easy is it to take off your white coat, your apron or whatever, go home and be a mum at the end of the day?

SB:  Oh easy.  It's just the other side of the coin.  There's only one occasion where I made a mistake, and I made a really big mistake.  I have three daughters -- the oldest is 23, the middle is 12 and the youngest is 10.  I'd just come back from Iraq.  I was doing a radio programme and they'd asked me to take a mic with me and record things at the time.  I hadn't heard the piece, but my husband had recorded it for me, and I said, "Oh, I'm going to listen to that radio programme."  And Grace, my middle one, said, "Can I come and listen too, mum?"  I did a quick think, and I thought, "No, that's fine," because I knew it was heading out into a sort of middle-ground audience so you're very careful about what you say. 

I made a really big mistakeAnd it was a mistake.  I shouldn't have forgotten that the interviewer had asked me: "How do you reconcile the day to day situations you can find yourself in and being a mum?"  I had completely forgotten that I'd said, "I believe I'm getting to the point where I'm close to irresponsible.  Because my children need to know that their mother's going to come home."  I looked at Grace, and the little eyes were filling up with tears, and she said, "What d'you mean you might not come home, mum?"  And I said, "Well I might miss the plane.  And you could see she was thinking, "Nah, nah, nah…"  She wasn't fooled in the least.

And when I did the second tour in Iraq after that, she was the one who suffered.  She was the one who worried, so I phoned every single night to say I'm okay.  But she suffered, and I thought, "I can't put her through that. I cannot put her through that."  So I turn things down.  I've turned down Iraq since then.  I won't go back to Iraq.

If I'm going away she says, "Where are you going?  What are you doing?"  And I say, "It's alright, I'm going to a conference."  That's okay.  Or "I'm just going to Cumbria."  "That's not overseas, is it?"  "No, no, it's only England, it's fine."  And, you know, she's okay with that.  But when it's overseas she suffers.

SA:  And the other kids?

SB:  Och, they couldn't care less!  My 23-year-old is old enough to be able to cope with it, and my 10-year-old, providing she has her iPod, and her Nintendo and chocolate, and whatever, she's happy.  She couldn't care less at all, she's very very independent in that regard.  It's my middle one that's the worrier.  She worries about everything – you know, the ozone layer; dolphins caught in tuna nets.

SA:  You were saying earlier that it was the right thing to do at 17 to get away from home, but how much support have your mum and dad given you over the years?  Were they proud of you?

SB:  My mother was enormously proud.  My father finds it difficult.  He's an ex-regimental sergeant major, classic Scotsman, and he has never, to my knowledge, hugged me, kissed me or held my hand in public ever, ever, ever.  He finds demonstration of affection really difficult.  But I know how much he cares.
My mother had a scrapbook, bless her, of everything that I'd ever done, which we found when we were going through her things very recently.  She was dreadfully proud. My father is but he can never tell you.  Neither of them had ever gone to university so they didn't quite know what it was about.  And me being me, I applied for university without their knowledge.  At that time there were student grants, and I applied for a grant without their knowledge.  But then it came back saying, "We need to know what your parents' income is", so I had to let them know at that point what I was doing.  And at 17 I had the wonderful wisdom to decide that my parents couldn't afford to help support me.  So I lied to them and said I had a full grant.  But of course I hadn't!  So I took on three jobs to get through -- there was no way I was going to ask my parents to support me through university.  I'd decided I could do this on my own, and I desperately wanted to be independent.


Training the police

SA:  So what's next?

SB:  Oh well, our big development this year is that we've secured the training for the national disaster victim identification -- it's the first training course of its kind anywhere.  We trained 250 policemen this summer.  It's been a summer from hell, because my mother took ill just before the first course and she died just before the last course.

SA:  Was it expected …?

SB:  No, her liver just completely failed, and we hadn't known.  So I'd be Monday to Friday here teaching policemen, Saturday and Sunday fill up the car and go up to Inverness.  So it's been a long hard summer.

Anyway…we secured a contract to train the entirety of the British team, which is 500 policemen in total.  So we have another 250 to do next summer, and it's been a huge learning experience, I have to say. 

The idea is that for a British deployment everybody has to be able, and sufficiently competent, to fulfil a number of roles.  When we had the Bahrain boat tragedy – the boat in the Bahrain harbour that tipped over – the local authorities would only allow three members in, so how do you choose who goes in?  If you take a pathologist and a dentist, d'you take a fingerprint officer, or a photographer? 

We have to make sure that every officer is omni-competent.  So we train them for three months in a virtual environment that they can do from their own force.  They've got to pass those exams, and then they come here for a week's practical, which is what they were doing this summer.  We train them how to take finger prints from living and dead, they learn how to take photographs that are of evidential standard.  They learn how to scribe for the anthropologist, the pathologist and the odontologist, and how to fill out the documentation for the postmortem information.  They all learn how to do a strip search.  I mean, it really takes them through every aspect of a temporary mortuary from beginning to end. 

And then we throw in curved balls, things they don't expect.  So suddenly we'll shut down all the power in the dissecting room and say, "What are you going to do?  Are you just going to go home?"  Or we'll make the lifts break down so they've got to figure out, "How do I get the bodies from the mortuary downstairs?"  One of the things we did was we put a dummy grenade in the body bag, so we had to get them all evacuated.  The real adrenalin rush was going.   We have to try to train them for anything that can be thrown in their path.

“Every single one’s a curved ball”

SA:  So what in the way of curved balls has been the worst you've experienced in the field?  Lights going off I can imagine, and you've told me about that awful mortuary in Sierra Leone, and peeing behind a tree with a booby trap…but what else?

SB:  [Laughing] Well, every single one's a curved ball!  No two situations are ever the same is the honest truth.  We had a situation in Kosovo where we were going through that site I told you about, and at that point you know, I'd said to the anti-terrorist officer, "I don't know what I'm looking for; if there are devices here for us, I don't know what they are."  And he said, "Look, it's very simple.  If you come across anything and you don't know what it is, then you alert us."  And I thought, okay.  I was finger-sifting through and I came across a very, very shiny piece of metal, and I thought, "I don't know what it is and I'm not going to lift it." 

So we had to evacuate everybody, and the bomb squad came in.  And when he came back up to us he said, "You've no idea just how lucky you are, how close it was, because I have not seen one of these in years," and he pulled out a dessert spoon. [Laughter]  And I thought, no!  And he said, "Yeah, but you were quite right." I got the Mickey taken out of me for the rest of that trip.  A dessert spoon!  But you just never know, it could have been anything.


SA:  Finally Sue, who have been your mentors?  You mentioned Louise Scheuer...?

SB:  My first mentor was my biology teacher from Inverness Royal Academy, Dr Archie Fraser.  He sent me away to a work placement at the hospital and I'd come back and said, "I want to be a laboratory technician."  And I remember him to this day saying, "Don't be so bloody stupid!"  A teacher swearing, I was absolutely horrified!  And he said, "You're going to university." And I said, "But nobody's ever been before," and he said, "You're going." So he was hugely important because he gave me that confidence to go.  My grandmother had died by that point, and he kind of tipped the edge.

Two of my most important teachersAnd then when I got to university my supervisor was very important to me, but I have to say that it was more the head of department that was a father figure: John Clegg, who was the professor of anatomy at Aberdeen.  He was the one who went away and got me money to do my PhD, and persuaded me to stay and do a little bit of teaching.  And when I opened the unit here, he was the one that I invited down.  He's blind now, which is a real shame, but I had in that room two of my most important teachers. 

One was John Clegg, and the other was Louise Scheuer, who really got me involved in the job at St Thomas’.  Louise was interested in skeletal material as well and we just hit it off.  She's a generation older than me, but you'd never know it, we're like schoolgirls together.  And every now and then she'd say, "There's no book on this," and we'd say, "Well, let's write it."  And we ended up writing a book -- it took us nine years from beginning to end -- which became a definitive text on a particular area.  It's on juvenile osteology, so it's the development of the skeleton, and identifying the child.  And we had so much fun doing that.  There wasn't a textbook anywhere and we were so hacked off at there not being one, so we said, "Right, we're going to write it."

We're still very much in touch, and the collection of juvenile skeletons that we have here in Dundee is now called the Scheuer collection, after her.  And we have the Scheuer medal, which is for the student that does the best in that year.  So it's kind of my way of recognising and paying back to her.  She's been absolutely the most influential person in terms of my career.  And she's always been there, which is hugely important.

SA:  You mention your juvenile skeletons – are you constrained by the new legal framework about tissues and organs and everything?

SB:  The juvenile collection that we've got pre-dates the 1961 Human Tissue Act, and so we have special dispensation from Her Majesty's inspector of anatomy in Scotland that these are not skeletons that can be identified and therefore claimed, and therefore reburied. Therefore we're allowed to keep them.  And they're enormously important.  We teach the entire year with them

SA:  But what about now?

SB:  We can't do it now. 

SA:  Are you constrained in teaching…?

An area of research has completely closed downSB:  Oh absolutely.  It's not just teaching, it's the research which has had to be completely modified, because you can't take samples out of a postmortem room or dissecting room because you have to get permission.  And the permission…you know, you can't go back to families and ask for that.  So it's completely stopped.

SA:  So how do you feel about that?

SB:  I can see both ways.  I can see the situation as it arose through Alder Hey and the Bristol heart scandal, those sort of things -- I can see the families' distress at the situation.  But it does mean that an area of research has completely closed down.  We can't learn things because we can't get access to the material any more.