My favorite heroes/heroines are quiet, unassuming and passionate. A writer can’t help but come into contact with an amazing array of people, especially if the writing project deals with topics that impact us all. Many years ago, I was working on a project that dealt with forensic anthropology. It’s one of those fields that often goes overlooked by mainstream media. Yet, it is a vital, passionate kind of science. It’s a science that speaks for the dead.
During the course of the project, I came into contact with some extraordinary people. They were not simply scientists going about their work. These were dedicated, involved and determined individuals, who deeply cared about the meaning of their work.
One of the forensic anthropologists who moved me was Madeleine Hinkes. The depth of her commitment and her obvious passion impacted me at the time and has stayed with me over the years. Here’s a bit of background about this extraordinary woman, and a letter that she wrote to me in the 1990s.
Madeleine Hinkes holds a Diplomate in Forensic Anthropology from the American Board of Forensic Anthropology and has published dozens of important papers in her field. She has worked with the Office of the Medical Examiner in San Diego, Albany, Honolulu, Tucson, and Albuquerque, analyzing human remains and participating in a wide variety of forensic investigations. Hinkes has taught at both the graduate and undergraduate levels and has been involved in many criminal and mass disaster investigations throughout her career. In short, she brings first-rate credentials and decades of experience to her science. However, she also brings something rare and compelling to her work—a deep passion for what she does and an obvious commitment to its social significance. In this sense, Hinkes’ career is an expression of the human side of forensic anthropology—a style and approach that is shared by many of her colleagues.
Here is Dr. Hinkes’ letter. In it, she expressed what her career has meant to her from both a scientific and personal point of view. Despite the chaos and death that naturally surrounds her in her daily work, Hinkes discovered a deep, personal meaning to her science that is moving and inescapable:
You asked if I would tell you something of my career as a forensic anthropologist. Twenty-five years ago, I wanted to be an archaeologist—to dig up dinosaurs, in fact. However, in the Summer of 1973, I found myself in a field school and discovered my first human skeleton. It was 8,000 years old and perfectly preserved. That discovery made all the difference for me and I immediately switched my college major to physical anthropology. Ten years later I earned my Ph.D.
In graduate school, I worked with Walter Birkby, a nationally recognized expert in forensic anthropology. I had the opportunity to serve my apprenticeship with him and also work with the medical examiner in the Tucson, Arizona area. Those years of outstanding training gave me the knowledge and confidence to understand that I could handle any forensic situation that came my way. Since then, I have worked on medical examiner cases for more than twenty years. I’ve investigated homicides, airplane disasters, search and recovery operations, and much more.
Each forensic case is different in terms of the human remains to be investigated and what can be learned from them. These investigations are always fascinating, but sometimes also painful. I try to convey this to my students. I read somewhere that a student once described the human skeleton as bones with the people scraped off, so I try to use that definition in the classes I teach. I tell my students that the job of the forensic anthropologist is to put the people back on the bones. This is the concept of osteobiography—writing an individual’s life history through the skeletal remains. Most people take their skeletons for granted and are surprised at the amount of information contained in them, such as sex, age, race, stature, build, and even more specific characteristics like diseases, nutrition, trauma, occupation, socioeconomic status, and cause of death.
There is a tremendous range of human variation in the skeleton because each of us has a different life history in terms of health, disease, nutrition, exercise, lifestyle, trauma, and occupation. I often meet individuals whose skulls or skeletons I would love to study more closely because of their distinctive characteristics, and it is frustrating to me that the only way I can see my own skeleton is through an X-ray!
I have met many interesting people in my career, like pathologists, dentists, and investigators. I’ve also made some very close friends in strange places—like over an autopsy table. To my mind, the team approach to forensics is indispensable, and the best characteristic a forensic anthropologist can have is flexibility. Every situation is different and a forensic anthropologist can often find herself in some very primitive, difficult situations.
The sights and smells associated with forensic anthropology are distinct and often unpleasant. Much of my education didn’t prepare me for that, but I’ve learned to deal with it over the years. I have also learned much about people and the unspeakable things they can do to each other. It’s been quite an education in the real world, and I am much more conscious about my personal safety now.
I enjoy forensic anthropology because it allows me to give something back to society, to help families searching for loved ones, and to solve puzzles with a skill that few others possess (or may not even want to possess). When I first started in this science, there were few women in the field and I enjoyed that aspect of being different. Today, forensics is a very public arena and the expertise of the forensic anthropologist is constantly being tested. I am always learning something new and gaining a deeper appreciation for how different individuals are.
Testifying as an expert witness at trial can be daunting, but it is the ultimate end to a case—testifying to the trauma that led to death. Knowing that the accused murderer is in front of me in court is a sobering experience. As a scientist, I am supposed to be impartial and leave the arguing to the attorneys. However, the cruelty I often see in these cases—the inhuman treatment and indifference for another—should be punished.
I’ve investigated several mass disasters, like the 1985 crash of an Arrow Air DC8 in Gander, Newfoundland. In that crash, 256 lives were lost and I was instrumental in identifying 70 of the victims. In those kinds of situations, I routinely work at least a twelve-hour shift. The families are desperate to know what happened to their loved ones and the media is constantly pressuring the investigation team for information. In these situations, we cannot make any errors. A misidentification is the worst thing you can do to a family.
I’ve also worked on teams to identify the war dead, spending seven years at the Army’s MIA lab in Hawaii. I have met the sons of dead men who looked exactly like the photographs of their fathers on their military identification. It’s a strange and spooky feeling. Still, I found Vietnam to be a beautiful country filled with friendly people. They seemed very curious about a blonde, curly-haired American woman in their midst. I hadn’t paid too much attention to the Vietnam War when it was happening because I was too young. However, being there and talking to American former prisoners of war stirred me to learn all I could about the War. Each time we sent an identified soldier home to his family, there would be an official ceremony at Hickam Air Force Base. I would attend those ceremonies for the remains of the soldiers I had helped to identify. I don’t think my eyes were dry for a single ceremony. That’s the hardest part of the job—putting aside the clinical detachment and meeting the families and loved one of those men and women whose lives were cut short.
Today, I work on about twenty-five forensic cases a year. Some of them are routine homicides, but others can be quite strange. One of the strangest cases I investigated was the wreckage of a Boston Whaler boat and a gravesite discovered in 1988 on the uninhabited Taongi Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The boat turned out to be the Sarah Joe—a fishing boat that was lost off Maui in a storm nearly ten years previously with five men on board. When the grave was investigated, it contained the remains of a man. The questions that raced through my mind were incredible. What happened? How did this boat get to be 2,500 miles from home? Who found the bones and buried them? When? This case was featured on the television program Unsolved Mysteries because it certainly was an unsolved mystery! When I investigated the Sarah Joe, I had the adventure of sailing on a United States Coast Guard buoy tender through the Marshall Islands to Taongi. I was the only female on board for the four-day mission. The bad news is that I discovered that I get seasick and cannot swim to save my life!
Now, having said all this, I ask you: is there really any other career even worth considering?