A new exhibition opening today at the Wellcome Collection explores the intricate methods of forensic science. Ashleigh Arnott is one of the first on the scene to investigate.
Our most morbid fascinations are largely fuelled by TV thrillers and investigative podcasts, so the work of forensic scientists often seems a perfectly preserved world away from reality. ‘Forensics’ at the Wellcome Collection takes us on a tour through the complex stages of crime investigation and explores the innovation involved in solving some of history’s most intriguing cases; it’s less whodunnit than howdunnit. Here are some of the types of physical clues that can help to solve even the most gruesome puzzle.
EXHIBIT A: the trail of evidence
To get ahead in forensics you’ll need to remember its mantra: every contact leaves a trace. Recording those tiny signs is crucial, and the scene of crime officer’s equipment case contains everything from swabs to fingerprint powder. Examiners must systematically seal and label each item of evidence in specially designed packaging. Later, the elements are analysed by a range of experts – toxicologists, entomologists and ballistics specialists to name but a few – and each interaction is meticulously logged so every link in the chain of evidence is accounted for.
EXHIBIT B: the body
Despite what centuries’ worth of detective fiction would have us believe, not every investigation uncovers a criminal. In the late 1880s the body of a young woman was pulled from the Seine in Paris, and the pathologist – the story goes – thought her face so beautiful he made a cast of it. The girl’s identity was never discovered, but copies of the cast became a fashionable home accessory in bohemian society; the writer and philosopher Albert Camus even compared the unknown female’s expression to the Mona Lisa’s. Rather appropriately, her face has been immortalised for a modern audience on Resusci Anne, the CPR mannequin used to teach the kiss of life in first-aid lessons. The death of l’inconnue de la Seine remains a mystery; at the time it was thought that she committed suicide as her body showed no signs of violence, although it would take someone exceptionally stoic to drown wearing such an enigmatic smile.
EXHIBIT C: the blood of the victim
It is a serologist’s gory duty to determine the blood type of a sample, although given that their life’s work is devoted to other people’s bodily fluids they must quickly become sanguine about the gross process. And blood can do much more than identify its owner – this French detective’s notebook from 1937 illustrates the ‘typical’ bloodstain patterns that hold information about the angle and velocity of their journey. The splash produced by a droplet of blood increases in area with the distance it falls, but only up to about 1.2m, after which the size remains constant. So when it comes to bloodshed, size really matters.
EXHIBIT D: the maggots
Once the ancient philosophers’ theory that maggots spontaneously generated from dead flesh had been disproved, entomologists’ understanding of an insect’s life cycle became a key factor in determining how long a body has been a corpse. The adult female blowfly likes a freshly dead cadaver for an incubator, so a close inspection from a maggot expert can help to determine when a victim met their maker.
Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime is at Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Rd, NW1 2BE. Thu Feb 26 until Jun 21. Free.