2008 Medallist: Sue Black

2008 Medallist: Sue Black

The Lucy Mair Medal for Applied Anthropology was first made in 1998, and since that time, although it has been bestowed for work in medically-related areas, it has never been awarded for work in forensic anthropology. And yet, forensic anthropology has never had such a high profile as it does today, for the best and for the worst of reasons.  Its association with civil and war crime has made it a constant visible feature of modern media, and at the same time, these associations are reflected in popular culture, and in a growing interest in forensic disciplines as academic qualifications.

One person who has been at the forefront of these developments is Professor Sue Black. Professor Black was born in Inverness and has, since 2003, been Head of the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee. She was educated at Inverness Royal Academy and Aberdeen University, from where she received her PhD in 1987. She has taught human anatomy at the University of Aberdeen, and at Guys and St Thomas’ Medical School in London.

Her distinction in the area of applied and humanitarian work (to which we will come shortly) is grounded in a solid reputation in fundamental research and pedagogy. For example, her current projects include digital and morphological analyses of child facial growth and the internal architecture of the pelvis, evaluation of hard tissues as indicators of child abuse as well as the development of a hard tissue database, human biomechanical analyses of the upper cervical vertebrae, evaluation of human sexual dimorphism in the skull base, evidence of paediatric surgery in archaeological contexts, and vein pattern analysis as a biometric identifier, as well as demographic profiling of war crime that has resulted in child homicide.

Of her books, she has co-authored the  ‘(DVI) Disaster Victim Identification casebook’; ‘Age estimation in the living: theory and practice for the medico-legal professions’; ‘DVI – a practitioner’s guide; ‘Juvenile osteology: a field and laboratory manual’; ‘Forensic human identification: An introduction’ (with T. Thompson), ‘The Juvenile Skeleton’ and ‘Developmental Juvenile Osteology’ - (both with J. L. Scheuer), and ‘Essential Anatomy for Anaesthesia (with W. A. Chambers). She has contributed numerous book chapters and papers in professional journals on anatomy, osteology, biological anthropology, osteoarchaeology, forensic science, and palaeopathology

In the field of education, she has developed the first undergraduate training course in forensic anthropology in the UK, and the first postgraduate course in human identification. She has been the leading academic involved in the development and delivery of the UK national Disaster Victim Identification training programme for the police, and was critical to the establishment of forensic anthropology within the remit of the Council for the Registration of Forensic Practitioners. For one of her referees, Professor Black’s greatest achievement is her success in pushing the discipline of forensic anthropology forward, both in terms of deployment in the field and in the mind of the public. I quote, ‘Undoubtedly, without her momentum and drive, the status of the discipline in the UK would be many years behind it’s currently position. With the increased profile that she has gathered has come a resultant increase in students, practitioners and research. As such, forensic anthropology as a subject in the UK leads the field in some of the more exciting developments’.

However, the work for which she is being particularly honoured today is as a consultant forensic anthropologist. Her past appointments have included Consultant forensic anthropologist at the University of  Glasgow. She was the founder both of the British Association for Human Identification and of the Centre for International Forensic Assistance, of which she is currently Director. She is a Registered practitioner with National Crime and Operations Faculty, and senior advisor to the Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office on matters pertaining to forensic human identification, forensic anthropology and disaster victim identification. She has, additionally, advised foreign governments, the military, United Nations, FBI, procurator fiscals, coroners and police forces.  Over a period of 20 years she has been involved in courtroom testimonies both at home and abroad.

In terms of fieldwork, she was Head of Profession, for the British mission in Kosovo from 1999 to 2000, and has provided anthropological services for war crime investigations in Kosovo, Grenada, Sierra Leone, Iraq, and in Thailand following the 2004 tsunami; and in many other national and international operations. Among the endorsements we have received in support of Professor Black’s award, were those emphasising the exemplary professionalisation she exhibited during her mission in the Balkans, despite the levels of stress that inevitably accompany such work. It is judged that her personal role was a significant factor in the success of the British forensic team. Not only did she spend many weeks in the field, analysing hundreds of bodies, but she also mobilised and co-ordinated the British anthropologists and archaeologists to ensure that several annual deployments of tens of anthropologists was possible. Her work here and in other regions of political unrest and injustice has been outstanding. Beyond this, she was instrumental in pushing the British government to respond with a forensic disaster victim identification team following the tsunami in SE Asia.

It is appropriate that her work is now being acknowledged publicly. She was awarded an OBE in 2001 for her services in the Balkans, and in the same year a prize for her book on ‘Developmental Juvenile Osteology’ by the Royal Society of Medicine and the Society of Authors. She received a DSc for her work in forensic anthropology from Robert Gordon University in 2003. In 2005 she was elected to a Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and in 2006 was the recipient of its inspirational award.

On behalf of the Council of the Royal Anthropological Institute, it is a very great pleasure and privilege to award the 2008 Lucy Mair Medal to Professor Sue Black in recognition of her work in applied forensic anthropology.


Text written by Professor Roy Ellen, President of the RAI