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If I empathise I'm not serving the court. If I'm not serving the court, I'm not serving justice or the victim

ALL her life, from her very first job in a butcher's shop, says Professor Sue Black, she has worked with dead bodies.

The dead, therefore, don't faze her. As Scotland's pre-eminent forensic anthropologist, she knows them too well. She is not spooked by them. She has seen that "no dead body has ever moved, they don't get up and haunt you and they really don't ever do anything".

She knows the look, feel and smell of them, in all forms of decay or preservation. She knows the cadavers of those who have given their remains to her anatomy department. She has known, too, the decomposed corpses of those killed in Kosovo, bodies which it was her job to identify when she led the British forensic team there. She has seen her mother dead, and the moment her mother-in-law passed away, "like a light switching off". The dead have long surrounded her.

But it is a very particular type of dead body she wants to talk about now – and how it has led her to enlist the aid of crime writers, including Val McDermid and Caro Ramsay, on a fundraising project. In the past few years she has started to work with bodies preserved by a very special form of embalming, known as the Thiel process. So far, she has only worked with two of these bodies, but she believes they represent the future and is now attempting to set up a mortuary using this technique in Dundee.

For surgeons, these Thiel bodies make ideal subjects on which to practise. Black remarks on how different they are from those preserved by the standard method: formalinated and "fresh frozen". Those preserved in formalin are tough, more like meat. They don't feel, to those practising surgery on them, like the real thing. And those that are "fresh frozen" – which is just as it sounds, defrosted human body parts taken from the freezer – decompose too quickly under the bright lights of the theatre. Neither is satisfactory.

A Thiel embalming mortuary would represent a major step forward, one that Black declares the "most important thing in anatomy since Burke and Hare". It is enabled by the fact that current Scottish legislation – unlike that in England and Wales – allows surgeons and other medical practitioners to practise on dead human tissue.

Black notes: "The difference between these bodies and what we have been using is phenomenal. It's like comparing chalk and cheese." Almost all the surgeons who have tried them out agree. "Sir Alfred Cuschieri," says Black, "who is the inventor of keyhole surgery and is in Ninewells Hospital in Dundee, came and practised laparoscopic surgery on these cadavers. He said the tissue feels exactly like the patient. So, for the first time they've got a real model they can use for training in laparoscopic surgery."

But the problem for Black has been that while Dundee University has spent £1 million on the mortuary, she has still to find a further £1 million to fit it. To help with this, she turned to her friend, crime writer McDermid, with whom she had spent many "fun-filled hours, talking through plot scenarios".

McDermid and other crime writers got together and started a string of fundraising projects and publications. Among them is a recipe book edited by Caro Ramsay, The Killer Cookbook, which includes a recipe for a margarita by Black's husband.

Our society values empathy as a prime human skill. But Black's particular facility seems to be to suspend that empathy and be, in the face of horrific evidence and injuries, coolly distant. "What makes a good forensic anthropologist," she says, "is that you deal with it clinically, not emotionally." Even her description of what the work entails seems like a lesson in detachment: "It is about saying, 'That looks to me like a crushing injury – not a blunt-force trauma or sharp-force trauma. It's a crushing injury, and if that's a crushing injury, where do we think the crush happened? And does it match with the injury?' It really is about building up the picture, step by step, all the way and showing what evidence fits and what doesn't. It's investigative matching."

Some of the cases she works on are highly distressing, particularly those involving paedophiles. Nevertheless, even in these more horrific investigations, she does not allow herself to get too emotionally caught up. "I was not there when this person was being abused. I'm not the person responsible for it. The court expects me to be a dispassionate scientist, who will look at evidence, analyse evidence, interpret the evidence and report on that interpretation. If I empathise I'm not serving the court. And if I'm not serving the court, I'm not serving justice and if I'm not serving justice I'm not serving the victim."

The horrors of her work, she says, do not influence her home life. "But I have," she says, "very little home life because I work a bit ridiculously hard."

She adds: "I do have a family, allegedly [three daughters, 15, 17 and "grown up"]. My daughters are not young, but they do on occasion say: 'Are you working again mum?'

"When our youngest was about nine, she came to us and said, 'Have we ever been on holiday?' I thought, point taken, let's go."

They went to Portugal and within two days Black was so bored she started working and had written the basis of a book by the time she had got home.

Black, 51, attributes her work ethic, at least in part, to her parents, who were "always busy". Currently, on top of her teaching and university administration, she has three grant applications to complete, five papers to get finished and published, "two dismemberment cases, a murder and three paedophile cases ongoing".

Her family now have a rule that around Christmas she is not allowed to work for the three days of Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and her daughter Anna's birthday – "no email, no nothing".

Nowadays about 95% of those studying forensic anthropology are women. Black is uncertain why her subject attracts them when in general in scientific subjects the proportion of women studying is just 15%.

"People say that in forensic science we have more female role models, more people like me. And there are a lot of women in forensic fiction and television as well, so maybe it's being portrayed as more of a female-friendly profession. But I don't think it's enough. I'm sure there must be something about the subject that does it."

But Black did not grow up with television or real-life role models. The field did not exist when she was a young student and she ended up in it by pursuing her passion for anatomy.

She recalls that when, as a third-year student, she started to study the subject, "that was it, I just loved it. It's such an amazing world inside the human". Then, when it came to her fourth year and she had to do a research project, she recalls they "almost all involved rats and I can't work with rodents. Nothing was going to persuade me to lift a dead rat out of a bucket".

That fear had its roots in her childhood. Her parents ran a hotel on the west coast of Scotland and in the 1970s, when the binmen were on strike, she recalls, as an eight-year-old, walking around the back of the hotel with her dad, and seeing a rat in the corner. She watched as her dad then beat it to death. "And from that point on," she recalls, "that rat in the corner was my biggest nightmare."

Hence, at university, she "went round the department till I could find someone who would take me on as a student on a project which didn't have rodents. The one I found was on human bone identification."

At times Black can sound rather cold and clinical. But, in fact, she is not at all that. In person she appears a warm and very humane eccentric. One of her admirable qualities is the degree of respect she has for the dead and grieving, and the way she inculcates that in her students.

People considering bequeathing their remains, she says, often come and sit and have a tea in her office. "They might be dead four weeks later. And our job will be to take them away from their family, promise their wife or their husband that we will look after them. So we take a really personal responsibility for that whole process."

Black intends to sign up to donate herself to the department. If she does so, she will be following the path of fellow staff members. She says: "Their view was, 'I've worked here all my life, I've had a few years of retirement and I'll come back and help you teach when I'm dead.'" It's not a future she sounds daunted by.

But then, Black barely seems to view death as terrible at all. "I think," she says, "so much of the time as a society, we shy away from death. But, just as we celebrate the marvel of a baby being born, when you get to the end of it we need to be the same."

Sue Black Forensic anthropologist

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