Bournemouth’s poison professor is on the right side of the law

Professor David Osselton at Bournemouth University

On 28 April 1882, Bournemouth GP Dr George Lamson went to the gallows for the murder of his teenage brother-in-law in an attempt to get his hands on a greater share of a family inheritance. The evidence that convicted Lamson hinged on a taste test performed on the victim’s bodily fluids by the country’s leading toxicologist, who reported a tingling on his tongue and duly testified that the boy had been poisoned by aconitum, a derivative of monkshood or wolf’s bane.

The taste test, supported by injecting the extract into a laboratory animal, was the best that Victorian forensic science had to offer, but while there seems little doubt about Lamson’s guilt, 135 years later things have changed beyond recognition and work being carried out at Bournemouth University is leading the way.

The Head of the Department of Archaeology, Anthropology and Forensic Science, Professor David Osselton, has worked in toxicology for more than 40 years and was Head of Toxicology for the Home Office Forensic Science Service, working on high-profile cases including the Shipman murders and those committed by Steve Wright, the Suffolk Strangler. David retired in 2007: ‘Ostensibly to play golf,’ he laughs. That was when Bournemouth University approached him to set up a forensic science department on a two-year contract and now, a decade later, he is busier and more excited about the work than ever.

‘Working with young people who are keen to learn and have the ability to tackle research problems with open minds is a wonderfully rewarding part of university life,’ he says. ‘When I came here we had eight undergraduates, now we take on between 150 and 160 students a year. Not all go straight into jobs in forensic science, but a high percentage do and of those that don’t a good number find themselves in other interesting work – anything from what we might call ‘spooks’ work to industrial research and teaching.’

At the heart of David’s passion for his subject lies its many and varied applications to crime and detection. ‘I collect the cases of famous poisoners, including Lamson, and have many of the trial transcripts because they make such fascinating studies for the students. You have to analyse the signs and symptoms of poisoning as well as analysing a wide range of samples to build up a picture.

Training to go to court is also a vital part of what we do because you need to be able to explain your findings in terms a layman would understand and provide the context. You have to ask yourself so many questions and not just about the science, you almost need to get inside the perpetrator’s mind in some cases. More and more, you’ll find that toxicologists are deferred to by doctors to provide interpretative evidence in court.’

No two people metabolise or otherwise react to drugs or alcohol in the same way – our body chemistries are all different. Substances also affect us in other ways when taken in combination with each other and all of them behave differently before and after a person’s death. The toxicologist’s job is tough enough when dealing with a known substance, but there are times when it borders on what may seem to be the impossible when they don’t know what it is they’re looking at.

David, who edits the industry ‘bible’, Clarke’s Analysis of Drugs and Poisons, has done a lot of work on what are now inaccurately referred to ‘legal highs’ – subtly altered chemical subversions of familiar proscribed drugs such as cannabis, cocaine, amphetamine, ecstasy, MDMA, even heroin and morphine – and sat on an expert committee that helped draw up changes to the Road Traffic Act that came into effect in 2015.

Dr George Lamson – hanged on a taste test

‘Every substance has its own unique fingerprint but our analytical instruments will only detect and analyse known substances. Legal highs are typically produced by slightly altering the chemical make-up of an active substance so that it is almost but not quite identical and therefore difficult to analyse. Recent changes to the law have driven the trade in these substances underground, but they are still obtainable and people who take them still have no idea what’s in them or what effect they’ll have. Some of them are incredibly dangerous – some are closely related to the types of sedative that would be shot into a hippo or other wild animal in a safari reserve to bring it down. Why someone would want to take something like that for fun is way beyond me.’

Bournemouth University has become a leading centre for the study of forensic science and an important hub for research, much of it supported by industry. The forensic science department works closely with public and private sector organisations both locally and on a national level – it can offer facilities to carry out training in its purpose-built crime scene unit, a suite of rooms that look like a typical home but can be adapted as crime scenes.

‘We’re doing a lot of really exciting work on how drugs can be detected in oral fluid,’ says David. ‘How long before they show up in saliva, how long they are detectable for, do they go off, how do they react with the properties in saliva – lots of different questions to answer, but ultimately it will improve the efficiency of roadside testing for drug-driving, for instance, and that will help the police get dangerous drivers off the road.

‘I’m also really interested in how drugs can be detected in eye fluid, vitreous humour. You can only test for it post-mortem but particularly in a case where there has been a lot of trauma and blood loss, the eye fluid is relatively unlikely to have been contaminated. That may mean that the coroner can deliver a verdict with greater confidence, which could have an impact on the victim’s family, and on whether or not the life insurance pays out. The work we do always has implications in the real world.’

Touring the various labs and state-of-the-art facilities, it is abundantly clear that forensic science has come a long way since a simple subjective taste test sent Dr Lamson to his fate, but there is a clear parallel between what drove the Victorians in their great age of discovery and David Osselton’s unbridled enthusiasm as he says: ‘What I love about forensic toxicology is that every case is different – I don’t see how you can fail to be excited by it.’

• First published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.

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