Sue Black - Transcript Summary

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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Section 1

  • In discussing the development of her career as a forensic anthropologist she launches into the origins of her lifelong fear of rodents, which has had a significant influence on her professional choices.
  • Came from a family where nobody had gone to university, but her grandmother and her biology teacher convinced her that she could be the exception.  Studied science at Aberdeen and in her third year discovered that she “absolutely loved dissection”.  But when it came to the fourth year research project she had to tell her tutor, "I can't do mice, rats, hamsters – can't do them alive or dead."  So they put together a project on human bone, which turned out to be a pivotal moment in her career.
  • Continued studying identification of human bone at Aberdeen, and after completing her PhD went to St Thomas’ where she began teaching anatomy. 
  • Relates an anecdote about the first time she was asked to help the police with a ‘bag of bones’, which turned out to be from sheep.  This was the start of her work in forensics:  “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.”
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Section 2

  • Describes the tasks involved in reading human bones. “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.” These are sex, age, height and race.  Age and race, she says, present particular challenges.
  • The next step is to establish personal identity using four principal tools: dental records, DNA, finger prints, and any unique medical condition.  If this does not yield results, the forensic anthropologist is called in.
  • Describes what can be deduced from bones. “We can tell whether you're right-handed or left-handed; we can tell whether you're walking with a limp or not…”
  • Relates a story in which the discovery of a bone fragment was decisive in a murder enquiry. “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.”
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Section 3

  • In discussing the development of her knowledge, mentions that at that time in the UK “there was no formal training.  You couldn't do a degree in forensic anthropology.”  However, “there's always been a very good relationship between anatomy and matters forensic.”  She worked alongside two very gifted anatomists, one of whom, Louise Scheuer, proved to be a lifelong mentor and friend.  Both women were 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.”
  • Also pays tribute to the British talent for improvisation in the absence of formal structures: “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.”
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Section 4

  • Describes how it was not her original intention to go into forensics.  “In my heart of hearts I'm an anatomist.”  But “the work just kept coming, and the big turning point for me was Kosovo.”
  • Kosovo was a turning point also for the profession: from that point on forensic anthropologists were included in British teams involved in disaster victim identification (DVI).
  • Describes the many challenges involved in investigating deaths on such a large scale, and the teamwork involved.
  • Makes the point that in “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.”
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Section 5

  • Describes the central role her grandmother has played in her life – and continues to play even after her death.
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Section 6

  • Returns to her experiences in Kosovo and discusses being the only woman on the team.  Relates in detail the painstaking search for evidence which had to be able to stand up in a court of law. Describes “sifting finger-tip through every single piece of rubble that we could... bearing in mind that there might be explosive ordnance in there as well.”
  • Discusses how she copes with the horrors she witnesses.  “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... If you do become affected by it you become inefficient in your objectivity.”
  • Acknowledges that this is not always easy -- particularly when there is contact with the relatives of the deceased.   Then “you must take double the amount of care because... 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.”
  • Tells the haunting story of one particular man she helped whose entire family had been blown to pieces by a missile.  He told her “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…”
  • Stresses the importance of looking after yourself – and each other -- in the field in order to do a good job.  Mentions the ‘buddy system’, which she believes often provides more effective support than that offered by professional counsellors, because of the very particular experiences the team members share. “These are the people you can talk to, because when nobody else will understand, they do.”
  • Discusses the difficulty of dating bones.  “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...”
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Section 7

  • Relates in some detail a particularly difficult assignment in Sierre Leone, where UN politics clouded the issues.
  • Moves on to her experience of working in Thailand in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. Because of the scale and international nature of the disaster, politics and logistics were the dominant issues initially.  “That was one of the most difficult and trying things, I would say -- just getting the machinery rolling.” 
  • Talks about some of the complex problems faced by the response teams, which included misguided but well-meaning policies of getting relatives to identify victims from photographs.  For all sorts of reasons “we can’t rely on families to get it right... In the Bali bombing, they established that 50 percent of those that were identified visually were incorrect.”
  • Describes the detailed work required.  “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.”

 

Section 8

  • Talks about how she has never got rid of her early abhorrence of rodents and how understanding her colleagues have been about this phobia.  Says she has never been squeamish in general.  In fact, she says, “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.”
  • Discusses how she manages to combine her extraordinary and often harrowing professional experiences with regular family life.  “You value your family much, much more than you ever would, because you see the frailty of life.”

 

 

Section 9

  • Talks about the training in which she is now involved with the special forces of the police.  “The idea is that for a British deployment everybody has to be able, and sufficiently competent, to fulfil a number of roles.”
  • Discusses several people who have been influential in her career, notably Louise Scheuer.  Frustrated at the lack of information available, she and Dr Scheuer ended up writing the definitive text on juvenile osteology.
  • Closes with comments about the effect on research of the 2004 Human Tissue Act in the aftermath of the Alder Hey and Bristol organ retention controversy.  “I can see the families' distress at the situation.  But it does mean that an area of research has completely closed down.”

 

 

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