A Slab, A Stiff, And A Scalpel: 9 London Doctors Of The Dead

Laurence Scales
By Laurence Scales Last edited 26 months ago
A Slab, A Stiff, And A Scalpel: 9 London Doctors Of The Dead

We have come a long way since forensic scientists had to taste body fluids from the crime scene. For 200 years London has had experts bending over the mortuary slab probing silent witnesses. Here we line them up for identification.

Photo: creative commons

No need for experts

Two centuries ago the cry of 'health and safety' was unknown. Sudden death was an everyday hazard. Doctors were not always bothered to investigate what might seem like just another sad demise.

Pioneering physician John Gordon Smith (1792-1833) had his first experience of violent death while serving in the Napoleonic wars. He studied the effects of various wounds, types of suffocation and poisons, and lectured at the Webb Street anatomy school in Bermondsey. But he was a tetchy speaker and somehow managed to make sudden death deadly dull. Forensic medicine was not in the curriculum for medical students and so most did not bother to come and hear him. Smith's own death was squalid. He died in a debtor's prison.

So far, murderers had it easy. But things changed soon after Smith's death. 1836 was a milestone year, with an act of parliament providing payments for medical experts and post mortems. It was also the year when James Marsh at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, invented a reliable test for arsenic. The deadly poison was freely available but produced symptoms similar to water borne disease.

Alfred Swaine. Photo: public domain.

The wire

Alfred Swaine Taylor (1806-1880) was a medical practitioner who developed an interest in chemistry and visited medical schools in Europe where he heard lectures on forensics and saw gunshot wounds being treated during revolutionary turmoil in Paris. He was able to pick up at Guy's Hospital where John Gordon Smith had dropped the subject, writing about and teaching 'medical jurisprudence', but now in a more favourable regime.

Taylor was one of the first expert witnesses to make a name for himself. When John Tawell poisoned his former lover with cyanide in 1845 and fled to London — incidentally becoming the first criminal to be apprehended by means of the electric telegraph — Taylor was an expert witness at the trial. He eventually accepted forensic specimens for analysis from all over the country.

Scenes from the trial of Dr. G. H. Lamson (the Wimbledon Poisoner) at the Central Criminal Court in 1882. Wood engraving. Photo: Wellcome Library.

In the worst possible taste

Taylor's successor in terms of eminence in chemistry and forensics at Guys's was Thomas Stevenson (1838-1908). He helped to hang Wimbledon poisoner Dr George Lamson whose dubious Dundee cake was implicated in a plot to kill his brother-in-law for money. Lamson's medical studies had told him that the plant poison aconite was undetectable. But it pays to stay up to date and Stevenson had the techniques to reveal it. For example, he put samples from the body fluids and cadaver on his tongue and experienced a warning tingle!

Curl up and dye

Sir William Willcox (1870-1941) was a physician and toxicologist, equally dextrous with scalpel and test tube. He succeeded Stevenson as analyst at the Home Office. He lived not far from Harley Street and maintained an imposing appearance: morning coat, top hat and chauffeur driven Rolls.

He was once called upon to investigate an accidental death caused by poisonous shampoo at Harrods. (The formulation has changed since 1909!). He also experimented with poisonous alkaloid on a cat, later named Crippen in honour of the infamous poisoner he was investigating. Happily, the cat was still able to produce kittens and resume a normal feline career.

Willcox also conducted some experiments with patches of human skin, firing different guns at them from different distances and seeing how this affected their appearance.

Photo: public domain.

The murder bag

Sir Bernard Spilsbury (1877-1947) is particularly known for identifying the cause of death in a series of bloodless killings mysteriously lacking in signs of poison or violence. The unfortunate victims were known as the 'brides in the bath'. Spilsbury, who studied under Willcox, performed over 25,000 post mortems. Only a minority involved suspicious circumstances. His cold demeanour and unhesitating pronouncements in the witness box sent many a prisoner to the gallows. His innovation was 'the murder bag' which he could seize when the call came to visit a crime scene. His career ended long before DNA testing was invented but the gloves, bags, and tweezers in the murder bag were Spilsbury’s early attempt to avoid contaminating evidence.

The Three Musketeers

"My patients never complain. If their illness is perplexing, I can always put them back in the refrigerator."  — Keith Simpson.

The great domed head of Professor Keith Simpson took Spilsbury's place in the public arena, if not in its grisly affections. Simpson was a particular authority on asphyxiation. The tragic wartime incident in which more than a hundred victims were crushed in a stampede at Bethnal Green Underground station gave him an unusual number of examples for study. He was involved, later, investigating the affair of Lord Lucan's murdered nanny.

For a while he dined regularly with two other London pathologists — in his words 'The Three Musketeers'. Simpson (1907-1985), Donald Teare (1911-1979) and Francis Camps (1905-1972) all sifted remains from the sordid murders at 10 Rillington Place, Notting Hill.

Keith Simpson. Photo: creative commons.

Teare was on the 'cleft chin murder' case, in which a rogue London taxi driver was shot for a trivial sum of money by a US army deserter. But Teare preferred to keep out of the limelight.

Camps, seems to have been a vain, impatient and disagreeable character. He fell out with Simpson. Camps worked at, shall we say, break-neck speed (90,000 post-mortems to his credit) and smoked at the post-mortem table, dribbling ash. He investigated the pot-pourri of human and animal bones found at 10 Rillington Place. He was also called in by the Museum of London to examine the undershirt said to have been worn by Charles I to his execution.

We should mention a fourth musketeer, Simpson's wartime assistant Molly Lefebure, who has left a memoir of their work together.

Mystery meat

We have seen that there has been almost a rule of dynastic succession among forensic experts. David Bowen (1924-2011) took the baton from Teare, having worked as his assistant. Bowen was called in to investigate when police brought him samples of mystery meat which had been blocking the drain at a house in Muswell Hill. Bowen quickly identified it as human, and police were in position to arrest the serial killer Dennis Nilsen when he came home from work.

Last Updated 01 December 2016