Blog | Thursday, June 12, 2014

How a forensic anthropologist inspired work on human rights


Clyde Snow died. He lived a good long life, even though he was a chain smoker.

You may not have heard of him, but you’ve certainly heard of his work.

Snow was an anthropologist who morphed into one of the world’s foremost forensic anthropologists.

His great skill was in identifying skeletal remains and determining the cause of death. He was also expert at estimating the age of the individual who died. His techniques could decipher a skeleton’s gender, whether they were a manual laborer or not, and whether they were right- or left-handed. He began this work in the analog era, well before the widespread use of computer technology or the ability to perform DNA analysis.

Snow was called on to investigate dozens of murders, executions, and mass killings. His methodical work and clear communication allowed authorities to bring evil doers to justice. He called Oklahoma his home for the last 54 years of his life.

One of the many people that Snow influenced was a young pathologist at the University of Chicago with a strong commitment to social justice: Dr. Robert Kirschner, who would go on to co-found that university’s Human Rights Program. Kirschner met Snow in 1979 while they were both investigating the crash of an American Airlines flight near Chicago that killed all 273 people on board. Kirschner later joined Snow in investigations of suspicious deaths and mass graves around the world in places like Argentina (“the disappeared”) and the former Yugoslavia (Bosnia).

Kirschner achieved renown in his own right, using his forensic pathology skills to evaluate living torture victims as part of work on behalf of Physicians for Human Rights, among other advocacy groups. He became an expert witness in what would become known as “The Chicago Police Torture Trials,” which demonstrated that Chicago cops in at least one precinct of the city routinely tortured African-American detainees in order to coerce them into confessing guilt in crimes they did not commit.

Sadly, Kirschner died too young from cancer in 2002.

I hope the examples of Drs. Snow and Kirschner continue to live on and serve as examples of purpose-driven work to which we should all aspire.

This post by John H. Schumann, MD, FACP, originally appeared at GlassHospital. Dr. Schumann is a general internist. His blog, GlassHospital, seeks to bring transparency to medical practice and to improve the patient experience.