Born: 16 May 1877 Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, England
Died: 17 December 1947 (aged 70) London, England
Sir Bernard Henry Spilsbury Kt was a British pathologist who lived from May 16, 1877, until December 17, 1947. Hawley Crippen, the Seddon case, the Major Armstrong poisoning, the Crumbles murders, the Podmore case, the Sidney Harry Fox matricide, the Vera Page case, and the murder trials of Louis Voisin, Jean-Pierre Vaquier, Norman Thorne, Donald Merrett, Alfred Rouse, Elvira Barney, Tony Mancini, and Margaret Lowe are among his cases. Spilsbury’s courtroom appearances became infamous for his effortless dominance.
He was also a key figure in the development of Operation Mincemeat, a deception operation that saved the lives of thousands of Allied soldiers during WWII. In 1947, Spilsbury committed suicide.
Just after 8.00 on the evening of 17 December 1947, a hospital technician at University College passed Spilsbury’s room and smelt gas. When the room was unlocked, Spilsbury was found unconscious on the floor with a Bunsen burner gas tap full on. Medical staff desperately tried to resuscitate him, but he was declared dead at 9.10 pm.
Spilsbury was born on May 16, 1877, in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, at 35 Bath Street. He was the eldest of four children born to manufacturing chemist James Spilsbury and his wife Marion Elizabeth Joy.
Spilsbury married Edith Caroline Horton on September 3, 1908. They had four children together: Evelyn, a daughter, and Alan, Peter, and Richard, three sons. Alan died of tuberculosis in 1945, just after the Second World War, and Peter, a junior doctor at St Thomas’s Hospital in Lambeth, was murdered in the Blitz in 1940.
The deaths (particularly that of Peter) were a setback from which Spilsbury never fully recovered. His choice to commit suicide by gas at his laboratory at University College, London, in 1947 is thought to have been influenced by depression over his money and deteriorating health.
Under Edward Henry, the Commissioner from 1903 to 1918, the three men had formed a good working relationship with the Metropolitan Police. He was committed to improving the efficiency and modernization of criminal investigations. When Pepper departed from St Mary’s in 1908, Spilsbury urged that England’s pathologists should have access to the best laboratory and mortuary equipment, and he found a powerful ally in Henry.
By 1909, the coroner, the Home Office, and the Director of Public Prosecutions was regularly calling on Luff, Willcox, and Spilsbury for forensic assistance.
Spilsbury married Edith Caroline Mary Horton, the daughter of a surgeon-dentist, in September 1908, and the couple lived in Hindes Road, Harrow on the Hill, until he purchased a spacious house at 31 Marlborough Hill in St John’s Wood. They lived here from roughly 1912 to 1940. (it now has a blue plaque to commemorate his residence). A nanny looked after their four children in the basement, while Spilsbury created a laboratory in a rear room on the upper level. Spilsbury maintained good professional ties with his sons Peter, who went on to become a surgeon, and Alan, who went on to become a lawyer and assisted him in the Gower Street laboratory.
He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in natural science from Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1899, an MB BCh in 1905, and a Master of Arts in 1908. From 1899 to 1899, he was a student at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, London. He specialized in forensic pathology, which was a relatively new field at the time.
When the London County Council ordered that all general hospitals in its jurisdiction employ two competent pathologists to do autopsies following sudden deaths, he was named resident assistant pathologist at St Mary’s Hospital in October 1905. In this role, he collaborated closely with coroners like Bentley Purchase.
In the 1930s, when he was at his peak, Spilsbury was completing an incredible 750 to 1,000 post-mortem examinations per year. During his long career, he completed more than 25,000. He was knighted in 1923 for his work as a pathologist, which helped to establish the field as a science.
He socialized with a group of criminologists, writers, and amateur enthusiasts known as ‘Our Society’ or the ‘Crimes Club,’ despite being a very private man (Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and PG Woodhouse were members). Their discussions revolved around medical and legal problems from the past.
The case of Hawley Harvey Crippen in 1910 brought Spilsbury to public attention, as he provided forensic evidence as to the likely identification of the human remains discovered in Crippen’s home. Mrs. Crippen was the victim, according to Spilsbury, since a scar on a small bit of flesh from the bones led to her.
Spilsbury later testified at the trial of Herbert Rowse Armstrong, a solicitor who was convicted of arsenic poisoning his wife.
The “Brides in the Bath” murder trial, which took place in 1915, cemented Spilsbury’s position as Britain’s greatest forensic pathologist. Three women had died in their baths mysteriously; in each case, the death appeared to be an accident.
One of these women, Bessie Munday, was murdered, and George Joseph Smith was charged with her murder. Spilsbury testified that because Munday’s thigh had goosebumps and she was gripping a bar of soap when she died, it was obvious that she had experienced a violent death – in other words, that she had been murdered.
Spilsbury was also a suspect in the trunk murders in Brighton. Even though the man accused of the second murder, Tony Mancini, was acquitted, he confessed to the crime shortly before his death, confirming Spilsbury’s testimony.
Spilsbury was able to deal with only a few remains, such as those in the Alfred Rouse case (the “Blazing Car Murder”). In 1930, a nearly-destroyed body was discovered near Northampton in the wreckage of a burned-out automobile. Even though the victim’s identity was never revealed, Spilsbury was able to provide proof of how he died, assisting Rouse’s conviction.
Spilsbury performed thousands of autopsies over his career, not only on murder victims but also on executed criminals. He was able to testify for the defense in the case of Donald Merrett, who was tried in February 1927 for the murder of his mother in Scotland, where his status as a Home Office pathologist in England and Wales was irrelevant: he testified for the defense in the case of Donald Merrett, who was tried in February 1927 for the murder of his mother.
Early in 1923, Spilsbury was knighted. He worked as a forensic pathologist and lecturer at the University College Hospital, the London School of Medicine for Women, and St Thomas’s Hospital, all of which were approved by the Home Office. He was also a Royal Society of Medicine Fellow.
Spilsbury’s dogmatic manner and unwavering belief in his infallibility drew criticism in later years. Judges began to worry about his invincibility in court, and a recent study has found that his rigid dogmatism resulted in judicial miscarriages.
The Wellcome Library in London purchased papers including notes on deaths investigated by Spilsbury at a Sotheby’s auction on July 17, 2008. The index cards in the files listed fatalities in the County of London and the Home Counties from 1905 to 1932. The hand-written cards, discovered in a lost cabinet, were the notes that Spilsbury accumulated for a textbook on forensic medicine which he was planning, but there is no evidence that he ever started the book.
Spilsbury was responsible for developing the so-called murder bag, a kit including plastic gloves, tweezers, evidence bags, and other items that investigators attending the scene of a suspicious death is now armed with, along with Scotland Yard staff. Spilsbury’s former home on Marlborough Hill, north London, is commemorated by an English Heritage blue plaque. Also at his birthplace, 35 Bath Street, Leamington Spa, where his father ran a pharmacist business, which is still open today.
During Spilsbury’s lifetime, and as early as 1925, with Norman Thorne’s murder conviction, educated opinion began to express worry about his dominance of the courtroom and the quality of his methods. The verdict caused ‘deep unease,’ according to the prestigious Law Journal, which noted ‘the more than Papal infallibility with which Sir Bernard Spilsbury is gradually being invested by juries.’
Spilsbury’s reputation has been reassessed in recent years, raising issues about his objectivity. Spilsbury was described as “extremely smart and highly famous, but fallible, and very, very obstinate” by Sydney Smith.
Spilsbury’s “strong evidence has doubtless resulted to conviction at trials that might have ended with sufficient doubt for acquittal,” wrote Keith Simpson. The “virtuosity” of Spilsbury’s performances in the mortuary and the courtroom “threatened to undermine the underpinnings of forensic pathology as a modern and objective specialization,” according to Burney and Pemberton (2010).
He has been criticized in particular for insisting on working alone, refusing to train pupils, and refusing to participate in academic research or peer review. This “gave him an image of infallibility that sparked suspicions among many that it was his popularity rather than his science that persuaded juries to credit his testimony over all others,” according to the report.