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Vol. LVIII, No. 5
March 10, 2006

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Forensics, She Wrote
NLM Exhibit Opening a Smash with Students

On the front page...

"Visible Proofs: Forensic Views of the Body," a stunning exhibition now at the National Library of Medicine, traces the history and science of forensic medicine from its 17th century origins to state-of-the-art relevance. Catching the fire and the excitement of television's CSI, The X-Files, and Profiler — minus the gore and commercials — "Visible Proofs" draws attention directly to the science, where the real excitement always was to begin with.


  Local high school students view an autopsy training film.

The subject could easily have been sensationalized, says NLM's exhibition program head Patti Tuohy. "That's why we took care to be respectful to victims and their families, so their privacy would not be abused," she explains. That sensitivity is evident in the portion featuring 1st Lt. Michael Blassie, who was killed in Vietnam in 1972. His remains, formerly interred as the Unknown Soldier "X-26," were identified in 1998 using mtDNA analysis, returned to his family and then buried with full military honors. This section is tucked into a quiet corner, and "since we all respond in a different way," Tuohy explained, "the exhibition is set up to give time and space to deal with the subject matter. This is not some video that hammers you with gruesome images — but neither do we shy away."

It's this exquisite balance that makes the show appropriate for the mature middle-school student — and up — as it serves as a vivid and thoughtful introduction to science.

Forensics is the specialty that interprets or establishes medical facts in civil or criminal law cases, and holds "marvelous things to see," Dr. Elizabeth Fee explained to over 200 high schoolers at the opening ceremony on Feb. 16; she is chief of the library's History of Medicine Division. "Don't miss the autopsy instruments used for President Lincoln."

  NLM director Dr. Donald Lindberg (l) cuts the “crime scene” tape signalling the opening of “Visible Proofs.” He’s joined by renowned forensic anthropologist Dr. Clyde Snow (c) and Kirk Bloodsworth (r), the first U.S. inmate convicted of murder to be exonerated by DNA evidence.

Not to mention the virtual autopsy. There's also a quartz spectrophotometer (for testing bloodstains), real training films and specimens like the bullet-wounded heart. There's a hefty microscope to peer through and other interactives to scan your own fingerprints or to create a composite portrait of a perp. "And there's work you can do in forensics," Fee told the students. "Toxicologist, pathologist, odontologist, entomologist, anthropologist, radiologist."

Local high school students witness the virtual autopsy.  

Not to mention the work of one of the speakers who's featured in the exhibit itself. Kirk Bloodsworth, the first person convicted of murder to be exonerated by DNA evidence in the U.S., is a sturdy, forthright guy who speaks plainly about his years spent on death row for the murder and rape of a 9-year-old girl: "Sometimes proof is not visible to the human eye," he says. "My voice is what made other people listen." Lawyers for the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal clinic, heard him, and persuaded Maryland authorities to search for a match of the evidence in the state DNA database.

And where was that evidence? "The judge had kept it in a closet in a bag — some clerk finally remembered it," Bloodsworth noted. Another prisoner was matched, ID'ed, tried and convicted. A former commercial fisherman, Bloodsworth now works for the Justice Project; he travels nationwide, advocating for legislation to make access to DNA testing more equitable.

"Forensics is not just entertainment pleasure," says Mike Sappol, exhibit curator and author of A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in 19th-century America. "We have difficulty dealing with death, so we need to make it meaningful. Forensics includes a vision of a just society — how to deter and prevent injustice and violence."

A most powerful witness to that vision was speaker Dr. Clyde Snow, the father of human rights forensics. "You look at 200 or so bones and 32 teeth," he said in a low-key, gentle voice. "Each one of those bones and teeth has a story."

In 1983, the American Association for the Advancement of Science called Snow to Argentina to investigate the disappearance of more than 20,000 men, women and children who were abducted, tortured, raped and murdered during the Argentine military's "Dirty War" of 1976-1983. "It was still very scary in Argentina," he told the hushed crowd. "The military could have come back to power, and many professionals had subverted the legal system and were signing false death certificates." That's why Snow, a forensic anthropologist, recruited a group of Argentine university students to help excavate hundreds of clandestine mass graves.

  Bloodsworth now advocates for legislation to make access to DNA testing more equitable.

In 1985, the evidence his team collected, catalogued and stored was used at trial. "These kids on my team were still scared, so I did testify. The case we presented was a 21-year-old woman, Liliana, 7 months pregnant at her arrest. She was kept alive until she delivered the baby, and 3 days later, naval officers took the child — they were running an adoption service for members of the military. Then they executed her and left her in the place where we found her."

After 2 years of forensic work, he noted, "these young kids on my team were contributing to the convictions of six of the men who had run their country." Snow has since traveled to 35 countries, including Serbia, Ethiopia and Guatemala, where his work contributes to evidence in criminal trials, international tribunals and national truth commissions.

"Bones make great witnesses," says Snow. "They speak softly, but they never forget and they never lie."

For tours and exhibition hours, visit or inquire at or call (301) 594-1947.

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