The life and crimes of Dame Sue Black

Dame Sue Black is the Pro Vice-Chancellor for Engagement at Lancaster University.

From 2005 to 2018, she was Professor of Anatomy and Forensic Anthropology at the University of Dundee. A leading forensic anthropologist, she has helped on a number of high-profile criminal cases.

My father was a cabinet maker, upholsterer and French polisher. My earliest memory is of being with him when I was about three. He was constructing the display cabinets down at Fort George. I went down with my dad in the furniture van. The smell of linseed oil brings me straight back to that day.

We lived in a tiny little village on the west of Scotland. My parents had a hotel, so my weekends were spent washing dishes, folding sheets, taking suitcases to bedrooms. I loved it. The touring buses used to come in on a Sunday, and I’d meet them all and assign their suitcases to their rooms.

My first job was in a butcher’s shop. I started when I was 13, and worked every Saturday and every holiday until I left for university when I was 17. The elements of cutting, dissection, bones and muscle, those sorts of things, I was very comfortable with that.

I’m a country girl at heart. I grew up in Stromeferry on the shores of Loch Carron and my heart’s in the West Coast. It would be lovely to go back one day.

Nothing has ever kept me awake at night,my head hits the pillow and I’m gone. I could sleep on a clothes line my father would say. I’ve never been squeamish, but I have a totally unrealistic and morbid fear of rodents.

Hamsters, mice, rats, it doesn’t matter whether they’re alive or dead. I had to dissect a rat in second year of university. A friend had to lift it out for me and pin it to the wax block. As long as I covered its head and tail with a paper towel then I could dissect it. When we were finished he had to unpin it and put it in the bin because there’s no way I could lift it. It stems back to when I was young and saw my father beating a rat to death with a brush at the back of the hotel.

Everybody remembers their fi rst dissection, it stays with you. That pulling back of the sheet, the introduction of yourself to the person who is on that table, because you’re going to get very intimate and very close with that individual, you’re going to see parts of them that they never even saw themselves. That first cut with the scapel blade is a memorable moment. It was truly amazing. What happens underneath the skin is absolutely incredible.

I’ll be leaving my body to science. I have an organ donor card that I will keep going as long as any of the organs are worth having, and then from that point forward I switch to bequeathal. It’s not something my husband likes the idea of, but he recognises that that’s my choice. As an anatomist who has accepted people’s bequeathals for so many years, I’d be a hypocrite in my mind if I didn’t. Without those bequeathals we would be nowhere near where we are today. It’s just the most amazing gift that people can give.

Wherever you are in the world and there is adversity or the horror of what man can do to man, when you look hard enough there’s also the most tremendously important green shoots of hope. In Kosovo, for example, we were at the most horrendous site where we were doing exhumations and the people in the village there had absolutely nothing, but their intention was to show us kindness. They would come out with a cup of coffee, which for them was an incredible gift because coffee was expensive. You can be in the worst possible situations in the world and somebody somewhere will show you kindness. That’s what stops you being jaded.

Coffee is my guilty pleasure. My husband bought me my coffee machine and I’ll never forgive him because it didn’t come with George Clooney, which is just unacceptable. On the adverts it’s got George Clooney with it!

(This feature was originally published in 2016)