Monday, 25 June 2007

nzedge Hero: Sydney Smith - Forensic Pioneer

The latest addition to our "Heroes" series about New Zealanders who have influenced recent world developments in one way or other is Sydney Smith.

Roxburgh-born forensic science pioneer Sydney Alfred Smith (1883-1969) achieved world renown through the application of science to justice. From the edge of an Otago goldfield to the telling edge of a murder weapon, Smith learnt to read the stories of dead men - and in doing so changed the way crime was investigated and solved.

Trained at the University of New Zealand, Victoria University and Edinburgh University (long an important centre for the study of forensics), Sydney Smith found himself in Egypt in 1918 during a period of intense revolutionary activity, hired as a medical-legal expert by the Egyptian Government. 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.

In 1927 Smith returned to Edinburgh as Chair of Forensic Medicine. He was elected dean of the medical faculty, a position he held for twenty-five years. There he gave evidence in famous legal cases. In 1934 he helped to set up a medico-legal laboratory for the Metropolitan Police, Scotland Yard. In retirement he advised the newly formed World Health Organization, helped establish a medico-legal system in Ceylon, and was elected Rector of Edinburgh University.

Sydney Smith’s 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' (the basis of a 2003 episode of “CSI: Miami”), 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 of forensic medicine" - precisely the explorer he had always meant to be.

3,200 words. Story by Ingrid Horrocks.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

His son was also of interest - Sydney Goodsir Smith, born in Wellington in 1915 but raised in Scotland. He became one of the leading poets of the Scottish 'Lallans' poetic renaissance.

In Mostly Murder the father describes how he sent his son to study medicine at Edinburgh University but soon disocvered "he had no bent in that direction and transferred him to Oxford, where he read history and literature ... He writes, strangely enough for a New Zealander, in broad Scots, inclined somewhat to obscurity and occasional bawdiness".

SGS became one of Hugh MacDiarmid’s most talented followers and one of his closest friends. He was boisterous and boozy, garrulous and gregarious, and gleefully projected a persona as the boozy bard of Auld Reekie.

His first poems appeared in the early 1940s - Skail wind 1941, and The wanderer and other poems 1943. Other poems and collections include The deevil's waltz 1946, Under the Eildon tree 1948, Orpheus and Euryidice 1955, Figs and thistles 1959, and Kynd Kittock's land 1965. Smith's first play The Wallace was commissioned for the Edinburgh International Festival in 1965. He also produced a bawdy Joycean experimental, Carotid Cornucopius 1947.

Sydney Goodsir Smith died in Edinburgh on 15 January 1975.