Old white man of the day

We have looked at brilliant Kiwi old white men in various fields, DNA, Rocketry, Mathematics, Languages, amongst many others. Today’s old white man earned his place on the world stage through the application of science to justice in the field of Forensic Science. Quote.

Sydney Smith was born on 4 August 1883, in Roxburgh, Otago. At the time Roxburgh was a hard-working migrant town of a few hundred people – a centre for gold-mining and sheep-farming. It was a place without a secondary school or a dentist, where pulling teeth became the job of the multi-tasking blacksmith. […]

Smith had an inspiring elementary school teacher, W.A Reilly, who encouraged students to “get something out of life – to go out in search of adventure.” Smith credited this teacher with his decision to go into medicine, which he saw as his passport to such adventure: “I thought of a medical career first as a means to an end. The end was to see the world, and if possible to get a place among the explorers and pioneers.”[…]

Even as a boy Smith knew where he was going and he worked hard to get there. Money he made in a gold-dredging boom enabled him to move to Dunedin, where he worked in the Friendly Society’s Dispensary. Largely self-educated, he passed the Pharmacy Board’s exam at the age of 23, and then quickly moved on to the University of New Zealand entrance exam and medical preliminary examinations. Soon after passing these, he went to Wellington, where he took up a post as the dispensing chemist at the hospital, and studied first-year chemistry and physics at Victoria University (then College). He was finally ready to begin his adventure. As Smith tells it:

“I had never heard of forensic medicine when I decided to become a doctor. Nor for that matter was I drawn to the medical profession by a burning desire to relieve human suffering and pain. I merely picked on medicine as the most likely means of escape from a small New Zealand village into the wide world.”

In 1908, aged 25, Smith set off for England. After a short period as a chemist’s assistant in London, he began the study of medicine at Edinburgh University. He graduated in 1912 with an M.B. with first-class honours, having gained a number of scholarships and awards along the way. […]

Smith’s entrance into forensic science was determined only by chance, when he was offered a research scholarship to study under the dean of the medical faculty at Edinburgh. The dean was a medical-legal expert. […]

A medico-legal expert, or specialist in forensic medicine, however, is not usually a detective. His or her role is to furnish police with specific information based on expert knowledge. They are in charge of looking at dead bodies and determining the cause and manner of death. The questions a forensic specialist asks are: “How did a person die? When did death take place? Where did death take place?” Only the question of why the murder happened – of the motive – Smith writes, “lies outside the professional scope of the medico-legal expert, and in certain cases, such as murder after sexual assault, he or she may be able to explain this too.” This may be all very familiar to the CSI generation, but in the early 20th century it was only just developing as a science.

In 1913 Smith was involved in his first big case. The bodies of two children were discovered in the Hopetoun quarry near Edinburgh. Although the bodies had been in the water at least eighteen months, Smith was able to provide the police with vital information. He determined how much time before their deaths the two boys had eaten their last meal, proved that they must have walked to the quarry, and hypothesised that they had been killed by someone they knew. The two boys had never been reported missing, but Smith’s evidence led to the arrest of the children’s father, Patrick Higgins, and to Scotland’s first execution of the century. […]

In 1917 Smith was offered a medical-legal expert role by the Egyptian Government, a post that carried with it a lectureship in forensic medicine in the School of Medicine in Cairo. He was released by the New Zealand Health Board, and travelled to Egypt on a troopship along with New Zealand reinforcements bound for the Middle East.

It was the job of the forensics section that Smith took over to review almost every important crime in the country, including nearly a thousand murders a year and many attempted murders. Smith quickly established a proper laboratory for the section, and within a few years Cairo had one of the best medico-legal installations in the world.

It was here that Smith was involved in the cases that established his reputation. In the summer of 1920 he was sent a single bone. The bone had been discovered by chance by a gang of workmen building a trench. After Smith established it was a human bone, police took over the dig. They found a body just below the surface; then another body beside it; and another beside that, until they had discovered the bodies of fourteen women all killed over the past eighteen months. The clue that broke open the case was Smith’s observation that all the women had retained their pubic hair, a practice common only among prostitutes in Egypt at that time. This evidence enabled the police to trace the murders to two men and two women. These two couples had been systematically inviting prostitutes to their home, killing them for their money, and burying their bodies. The two men and their wives were convicted. […]

A new political crisis began on 19 November 1924, when Sir Lee Stack Pasha, the Sirdar (Commander-in-Chief) of the Egyptian Army and Governor General of Sudan was shot while driving through the streets of Cairo. Smith was to play an important role in this moment in Egyptian history, and to change the way shootings would be investigated in the future.

Forensic ballistics is the science of analyzing firearm usage in crimes. It involves using the marks of a bullet or cartridge-case to identify the particular weapon from which it was fired. From his position in Cairo, Smith’s opportunities for studying this new branch of forensic science were excellent. The Sirdar’s murder was one of a series of political murders, and Smith and his colleagues were able to prove that the same gun had been used for a number of these assassinations. When the suspected assassins, two brothers named Enayat, were caught, the guns found on them were immediately delivered to Smith. Smith fired off the guns, using techniques that were unique then but are now routine in shooting cases. By examining these bullets and their cartridge cases he established that a particular Colt .32 pistol had been used to shoot the Sirdar. Faced with this evidence, the Enayat brothers confessed, leading to the implication of six further accomplices in a number of political assassinations.

Smith’s article about the case, subsequently published in the British Medical Journal in 1926, marks the beginning of the scientific examination of firearms and projectiles. The Egyptian Government acknowledged his contribution to this case and others with an award of Commander of the Order of the Nile. […]

In 1934 he helped to set up a medico-legal laboratory for the Metropolitan Police, Scotland Yard. […]

As he passed through Australia on his homeward journey,[to New Zealand] Smith’s advice was once again sought on a mysterious case – the ‘Sydney shark murder’. Two fishermen had caught a fourteen-foot shark, which, when it was put on display in a Sydney aquarium vomited up a human arm. The arm was tattooed with a picture of two boxers fighting, and was quickly identified as having belonged to a James Smith. What was more difficult to determine was whether the shark had bitten the arm off whilst the man was alive, or after he was dead. On examining the arm, Sydney Smith became sure that this was a case of murder, and that the arm had actually been cut off after the man was killed. The suspected murder was linked to a major smuggling ring and arrests were made, but no one was ever convicted – the Supreme Court decided that no inquest could be held with only one limb. In 2003 this case became the basis of an episode of CSI: Miami. […]

Sydney Alfred Smith died in May 1969, at the age of 85, at his home, ‘Rhycullen’, in Edinburgh. His evidence had provided the turning point in many cases that made headlines throughout the world. From the assassination of the Sirdar in Egypt, to the famous ‘Sydney Shark Case’, he solved riddles through the close and impartial study of corpses, bones, fingerprints and firearms. As Smith said, “A cartridge case at the scene of an offence could prove as incriminating as if the murderer had left his visiting card.” Acknowledged internationally as a groundbreaking authority, he wrote a textbook, Forensic Medicine: A Guide for Students and Practitioners (1925), which is still widely quoted today (for example, in analysis of the Kennedy assassination). His autobiography, Mostly Murder, was acclaimed for the vivid, vital language he used to describe his work, and went into numerous editions. Smith was knighted in 1949 and received honorary doctorates from the Universities of Edinburgh and Louvain. He is fittingly described in an account of the history of Scotland Yard as a “characterful pioneer or forensic medicine” – precisely the explorer he had always meant to be. End of quote.


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In solidarity with the those in the world’s most despised demographic, WH has decided to ‘come out’ as an old white male. WH enjoys exercising the white-male privilege that Whaleoil provides for him by writing the occasional post challenging climate change consensus; looking at random tech issues that tweak his interest, as a bit of a tech nerd; or generally poking the borax at anyone in public life who goes on record revealing their stupidity. WH never excelled on the sports field because his coaches never allowed him to play in his preferred position on the right-wing. WH also enjoys his MG.

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