Feet of clay

Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the pathologist who became known as the father forensics.

Over the last four or five decades forensic science has become a major factor in TV series.

If the main character was not a pathologist then he/she was sure to be one of the stars.

The first major tv show starring a pathologist was Quincy ME, starring the lugubrious Jack Klugman as Professor Quincy, a medical examiner (an American version of our pathologist), which began in the late 1960s.

Jack Klugman, seated right, with other major stars in the American TV series Quincy ME

My own interest in forensic pathology began long before that. Just a few months after starting at Rhyl Grammar School in September 1961 I had decided on my future career. I was going to be a pathologist and my benchmark for success would be the great British pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury.

Over the next few years I became an “expert” on crime and the importance of science in solving murders in the first half of the 20th century.

I was already a fan of Conan Doyle’s ceation Sherlock Holmes and it was clear the author had imbued his offbeat hero with many of the elements of the forensic scientist.

By the time I was in my second year I was getting my books from the adult library and was reading the trials of some of the most notorious murderers of the first half of the 20th century. It was in reading one of the trial reports that I came across Spilsbury.

He was involved in a case which is still frequently referred to these days – that of Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen accused of murdering his wife Cora and entombing her in the cellar before eventually fleeing to Canada on the SS Montrose with his young lover Ethel Neave.

A Morse code message to the ship ensured Crippen was held and a detective sailed on a faster ship and was in Quebec when Crippen’s ship docked.

A Scotland Yard detective escorts the arrested Dr Crippen off the SS Montrose in Quebec.

Spilsbury was also central to the brides in the bath murder case (George Joseph Smith) which I saw referenced in a recent UK crime series.

These and many others gave him a reputation which lived on for years after Spilsbury’s death.

It saddened me years later to find that this “great man” had feet of clay and in many of his cases later examinations revealed errors in his methods.

In fact there is now a belief that the body in the cellar might not even be that of Cora Crippen and might have been buried before Crippen lived in the house.

In the 60s, however, all that lay ahead and I applied myself to chemistry and biology lessons and also to physics as I would need all three if I wanted to get to university.

The problem came in my fourth year. The physics teacher and I did not get along (a situation I was to face many times with people I did not see eye to eye with) and this meant I did not always pull my weight.

Not that this bothered me as what I fell down on during term time I tended to make up just before the exams.

In the summer term of 1964 the exams would determine which subjects we would be allowed to choose for the following year and which we could drop.

My intention was to stick with the sciences and I was quite prepared to drop geography for a start.

Unfortunately the physics teacher, Bill Fizz, had different ideas. He wanted me to drop physics and said that no matter how well I did in the subject if I did better in geography then that was what I had to do.

As I say, I wasn’t worried. Diligent revision would get me what I wanted, except it didn’t.

Just as my belief in Spilsbury was to be destroyed so was my belief in my own abilities.

My chemistry and biology marks were adequate but for the first time my physics mark was below 50% and my geography mark, usually faltering around the 50% mark, was over 60.

Bill Fizz got his way but that was not all.

The headmaster called me to his study and gave me a lecture on how failure at school would lead to failure in life. He had, therefore, decided that the best thing for me was to stay down a year and go through fourth form all over again.

Now I was well aware that I had done badly in my exams and it certainly looked as though my brilliant medical career, slicing up dead bodies, was about to crumble around me.

I was always a contrary little son-of-a-gun but this time something inside me went into overdrive and I told the headmaster I had no intention of staying down and would quit school rather than do so.

I don’t think this had ever happened before and he appeared dumbstruck until he managed to say: “It will not be your choice boy. I will be speaking to your parents.”

With that I was dismissed and as it was the end of the school day I headed straight home to get the first word in with my parents.

Tomorrow: when one door closes . . . .

Published by Robin

I'm a retired journalist who still has stories to tell. This seems to be a good place to tell them.

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