Historical Background of Forensic Anthropology.

So now that you’re familiar with the methods, how about some history?

There are three periods in forensic anthropology, Formative, Consolidation and Modern. I’ll quickly brief you on each of the periods, perhaps mentioning people of note or even cases of note. Please feel free to Google anything I mention if you want to know more.

Early 1800’s to 1938; the Formative Period.

Thomas Dwight (1843-1911) is credited with being the Father of Forensic Anthropology in the United States. He was the first to write articles and essays and give lectures on human skeletal identification, the original designation of forensic anthropology. He researched methods for determining age, height, and sex from the sternum, establishing stature without using bones of the arms and legs,  using the closure of joints between the bones of the skull to determine age at death. Sex determined from joints of long bones.

Forensic anthropology’s origin in the United States can be traced to the Parkman murder of 1849. Two anatomists first demonstrated the effectiveness of methods regularly used in forensic anthro today. Oliver Wendell Holmes the First and Jeffries Wyman were professors of anatomy at Harvard University in 1849 when they were asked to investigate a mysterious death. A dismembered body was found in a anatomy lab and privy (septic tank) as well as a burnt head in a furnace. Holmes and Wyman got the help of their anatomy colleagues reassembled the body and determine that it was a 5-foot 101/2-inch white male who was between 50 and 60 years old when the victim died. They used this information to compared with what was known of Dr. George Parkman a prominent physician. The dentures that were found in the furnace matched the molds of Parkman’s mouth made by his dentist when the plates were fabricated. Through the work of these scientists an identification of the decedent was made which helped to convict (along with other evidence of course) one John W. Webster; who was a Harvard University chemistry professor at the time. He apparently had borrowed money from Parkman but did not want to repay his debt so turned to murder instead.

Another famous formative period crime was the Leutgert case of 1897-It was a highly publicized murder; Adolph Leutgert was accused of killing his wife Louisa and placing her body in a vat of potash at his sausage factory. The body dissolved leaving only a greasy jelly, four small pieces of bone and a ring belonging to Mrs. Leutgert. The bones fragments were so small the could fit on a present-day quarter but the prosecution called anthropologist George A Dorsey (1868-1931) who appeared to been aware of Dwight’s work to determine if the bones could be identified. A notable courtroom testimony followed where Dorsey was able to prove that the four fragments were from a human hand, foot and rib. The evidence would not withstand the rigors required by modern courts but his testimony coupled with other evidence helped to convict Leutgert of the murder. Dorsey never again consulted on criminal cases apparently because he was severely criticized by opposing anatomists despite the successful entry.

Although even with these promising beginnings, there was a period during which there were few writings and no cases receiving sensational publicity dealing with medicolegal aspects of the human skeleton. Books were published by Harris H Wilder (1864-1928) and Bert Wentworth outlining the aspect of human identification from work on dermatoglyphics (configuration of fingerprints) and reproduction of the face from the skull, methods still used by forensic anthropologists today. Paul Stevenson (1890-1971) put out a couple of articles on human skeletal identification; one on determining age from the epiphyseal union of the long bones and the other on the stature of Chinese from long bone measurements.

There are two physicians of the formative period who played prominent, albeit unwitting roles in the development of forensic anthropology. T. Wingate Todd, a physician in Cleveland, Ohio started what was to become the Hamann-Todd collection of human skeletal remains (it also contains a large number of nonhuman primate skeletons). 1912 and 1938 he was able to acquire the bones of approximately 2600 persons.  Many of these, the demographics are known unequivocally making this collection heavily used for developing standards for determining ancestry, sex, age and stature from various aspects of the human skeleton.

Robert J. Terry and his successor Mildred Trotter performed a similar task in St. Louis, Missouri. Between 1914 and 1965 the Terry collection of 1636 human skeletons was compiled from dissecting-room cadavers, many of known age, sex and ancestry. The collection that bears his name is now housed in the Smithsonian Institution where it is used regularly for human skeletal research.

The last well-known murder occurring towards the end of the formative period that is often described in the forensic anthropology literature is the Ruxton case from Great Britain. Like the Parkman murder the principal investigators were not forensic anthropologists but the methods used then in this homicide are still in use today. This case involved the murder of not one but two women: Isabella Van Ess, the common-law wife (common-law meaning they weren’t married through a judge or church-one becomes a common-law spouse when one lives with their partner for a determined amount of years depending on where you live at the time. Not all states acknowledge common-law) of physician Buck Ruxton and Mary Rogerson, Ms. Van Ess’s personal maid.

A book was published in 1937 by John Glaister and J.C. Brash(the investigators of this case) called Medico-Legal Aspects of the Ruxton Case, which has the facts of this case. The authors describe how the disappearance of the women from the Ruxton home in Lancaster occurred around the same time that foul odors were described as emanating for the Ruxton residence. Also at this time, Dr. Ruxton rented a car, and stated that his wife and her maid had taken a vacation. When the dismembered, mutilated and decomposed bodies of two person were recovered from a gully in Scotland, the authors undertook to reassemble the body parts and place them in positions similar to those of a photographs of the women when alive.

Antemortem and postmortem images were then compared, point by point to show the similarity between the bodies and photographs of Ms. Van Ess and Ms. Rogerson. This with other evidence, Dr. Ruxton was found guilty of the murders and hanged in 1936. Interesting aside to this case, pointed out by Stewart is that Glasiter and Brash used the ratio between portions of the breastbone (i.e. manubrium and sternal body) as positive proof that this bone from one of the mutilated bodies belonged to a woman. The method of superimposing living photos on skeletonized remains is currently in use by forensic anthropologists today.

1939 to 1971 the Consolidation Period.

The publication of Guide to the Identification of Human Skeletal Material by Wilton Marion Krogman (1903-1987) in 1939 seems to end the formative period. This was written as a pamphlet for the FBI and it summarized what was known about the human skeleton up to that time. 1962 saw Krogman expanding this work into what is considered the seminal publication in skeletal identification: The Human Skeleton in Forensic Medicine. This as well as its second edition with co-author M.Y. Iscan was the first book to be devoted to the application of the study of human bone to forensics.

There were several events that took place in the 1940s and 1950s that were to have a great impact on forensic anthropology. First we’ll talk about the one during World War II, the bodies of killed service men often could not be recovered from the battlefield fast enough (and so came badly decomposed) or were so severely disfigured that identification was difficult. U.S. Army Office of the Quartermaster established the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii (CILHI for short) with Charles E. Snow (1910-1967) as it’s first director. Mildred Trotter (1899-1991) took over the lab when Snow returned to teaching on the mainland in 1948. She began working on improving ways of determining stature from the lengths of long bones, using the skeletons of killed servicemen and records of their heights. The result of her work at CILHI and as professor of anatomy at Washington University in St. Louis Missouri over the next quarter century is a standard set of formulas used for decades for determining stature from skeletonized remains.

Second event of this period that increased our knowledge base of skeletal identification was the Korean War. Again faced with the problem of identifying servicemen killed in action, the U.S. Army established an identification laboratory in Japan with T. Dale Stewart (1901-1997) as its director. Under Stewart’s guidance, Thomas McKern undertook a definitive study for determining age from aspects of the skeletal remains of deceased soldiers (because using the skeletal remains of live soldiers would be taboo not to mention unprofessional..sorry..). The ensuing publication Skeletal Age Changes in Young American Males (McKern and Stewart, 1957) still provides the standards for determining age at death from osteological remains.

T. Dale Stewart while working at the Smithsonian Institution contributed much to the development of forensic anthropology. Writing numerous articles on the aspects of skeletal identification that applied to the forensic situation. He contributed to the development of the discipline by organizing a number of seminars over a 20-year period on skeletal identification that became increasingly concerned with forensics through time. With Mildred Trotter he was largely responsible for persuading the U.S. Army to allow for research on the human remains from World War II and the Korean War under their care.

1972 to the Present the Modern Period.

The most influential book in this field was written by T. Dale Stewart; Essentials of Forensic Anthropology in 1979. The period is considered to have begun when the Physical Anthropology Section in the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) met for the first time in 1972. Ellis R. Kerley (1924-1998) and Clyde Collins Snow (1928-present) are the founders of the section. The previous year they had solicited enough interest among their colleagues to meet the minimum number of members required by the AAFS. Five years later the American Board of Forensic Anthropology (ABFA) was created with the purpose of ensuring the competence of person who practice forensic anthropology in the United States, Canada and their territories. There are 70 board certified forensic anthropologists diplomates while the Physical Anthropology Section of the AAFS has almost 400 members as of 2011.

The founding of the Forensic Anthropology Data Bank at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and the founding of the Scientific Working Group for Forensic Anthropology (SWGANTH) are the last two events of note in the modern period (so far at least!). More and more information was accumulated on modern human skeletons it became obvious that contemporary people were deviating from the norms established by the skeletal material of the Terry and Todd collections as well as the WWII and Korean War soldiers. The Physical Anthropology section of the AAFS was prompted by this to form a committee that eventually created a computer database of information on modern skeletons.

This forensic data bank started in 1986  and continues today to collect information on documented forensic cases so that new standards for determining demographic and other characteristics from the human skeleton can be updated continuously. A series of computer programs called Fordisc was developed from the data collected and can be used to calculate ancestry and sex (this program is available to anyone for a price–which sounds bad, but if you have the money you can buy it, the purchasing is not limited to certified or licensed labs or forensic anthropologists from what I have seen).

2008 saw FBI and DOD CIL (Department of Defense Central Identification Lab) founded SWGANTH to recommend “best practices” in the discipline with the greater emphasis on verifying methods and their error rates in the forensic disciplines in general. This working group is in the process of identifying and codifying existing standard and developing standards where they do not exist. Ultimate goal is to write guidelines for the methods and make them available to all practicing forensic anthropologists. Since it’s fairly new, guidelines have not yet been issued; however these will be published on their website http://www.swganth.org, in the future.

A little less brief then I intended. All the above comes straight from my book but I tried to word things in my own way as to not only to make it sound like me but to avoid copyright infringement. Probably failed in both aspects but I am not claiming that any of this came from my head. I probably wouldn’t have a need to take this class if it had came from my head.

Until next time, thrift store shopping can be fun-one woman’s garbage is another woman’s treasure or obsession.

Categories: Anthropology, Forensics | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Historical Background of Forensic Anthropology.

  1. Grungekidd

    thanks, this helped so very much! btw, cheshire is my favorite, ahh!


  2. Tiana Hubbell

    I LOVED this! It helped a ton with my research. Thanks!


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