The Out4STEM and Teva Interns Become Crime Scene Investigators

Sheets of fingerprints collected at the Arcadia Crime Scene House are spread across a table.

During these next two months, students in our various youth programs are active in both the classroom, in the laboratory, and in the community. Recently, students from the Out4STEM Internship program journeyed to Arcadia University to visit the Arcadia Crime Scene House. Opened in 2015 as part of Arcadia’s Forensic Science Program, the Crime Scene House provides simulations of crime scenes for students to home their observation skills. Together, the interns examined a simulated crime scene and gathered evidence, such as fingerprints, blood spatter, and shoe prints.

Students from the Center for Education's youth programs gather evidence from a human dummy simulating a victim at the Arcadia Crime Scene House

Meanwhile, students in the Teva Pharmaceuticals Internship Program conducted their own crime scene investigation here at the College of Physicians. Under the guidance of Gladys “GG” Seibert, an expert in crime scene analysis, the interns examined a mock crime scene. Braving the summer heat, they meticulously gathered evidence. Endowed with their newfound investigatory experience, they will take part in other lessons in processing that information. Along the way, they will also investigate the societal impact of violent crime and mechanisms for addressing and coping with violence.

Students in the Teva Pharmaceuticals Internship Program investigate a mock crime scene at the loading dock behind the College of Physicians of Philadelphia


The Karabots Junior Fellows Become Game Developers

The Karabots Junior Fellows work in teams to develop forensic science-themed tabletop games

The current cohort of the Karabots Junior Fellows Program has had a great deal of exposure to both forensic science and the use of games in the classroom. Their exploits throughout the year have involved studying diverse fields of forensics, including forensic anthropology, document analysis, and even lie detection. They have used games to learn about the Scientific Method, crime scene investigation, and the basic principles of computer coding. As part of their year-long project, it is their goal to bring the worlds of gaming and forensics together by designing their own forensic science-themed tabletop games.

Over the last few months, they have been responsible for breaking into teams (called Houses) to plan and design their own games. They have been given complete creative freedom to shape their games however they like, with each House deciding the theme, tone, mechanics, rules, and objectives. Their only restriction placed on them is that the game must involve some aspect of forensic science.

A list of challenges for the Karabots Junior Fellows' Houses to complete while designing their own games

Recently, the Fellows took a big step in bringing their visions to life. In a recent session, Mr. Kevin issued a major challenge to the Houses with a significant amount of House Points on the line (each semester, the House with the most points earns a prize). The challenge: complete and play test their first prototype, and share their games with other Houses. Each House assembled, and set to work.

Students in the Karabots Junior Fellows Program discuss their forensics-themed game

The Houses worked feverishly to complete all the challenges in the allotted time. In the end, all but one successfully completed their prototype and put them to the test. Along the way, they learned to channel their creativity, to work under deadlines, how to manage successes (and failures) and, most important, how to work together. We look forward to sharing their completed products in the near future!





The Karabots Junior Fellows Foil “Kidnapping” Plot

A "ransom note" for the Karabots Junior Fellows' lesson on handwriting analysis

In their semester-long quest to learn all there is to know about forensic science, the Karabots Junior Fellows learned about how forensic scientists examine documents. Questioned Document Examination(QDE) is the name given to any document analysis involved in criminal cases, be they ransom letters, counterfeit bills or checks, or historical documents of questionable authenticity. It has a variety of applications in a wide array of cases, including identifying forged, illegally altered, or counterfeited documents to assisting murder and kidnapping cases, to investigating acts of terrorism. The Fellows examined just a few of the techniques and applications (you can learn more about QDE here).

Students in the Karabots Junior Fellows Program examine a questioned document during a lesson on handwriting analysis

As luck would turn out, knowledge of QDE immediately came in handy. During class, they received word that Bucky, the classroom’s skeleton, had been kidnapped by some unknown culprit. The only clue we had as to the kidnapper’s identity was a handwritten ransom note.  Using their newly-acquired skills in handwriting analysis, the Fellows broke into groups and compared the ransom note to handwriting samples from several key suspects. In doing so, they were able to identify the perpetrator of this dastardly plot!

Students in the Karabots Junior Fellows Program examine a questioned document during a lesson on handwriting analysis


Philly Youth Learn the Impact of Gun Violence

Students from the Karabots Junior Fellows and Teva Pharmaceuticals Internship Programs pose with ballistics expert Mark Williford

One small piece of metal can change a person’s life forever. On Saturday, the Teva Interns and Karabots Junior Fellows came together to address issues in forensics, ballistics, and gun violence. Together they met with Mark Williford, a forensic ballistics expert and formerly an officer in the Philadelphia Police Department. Williford shared his experience as a police officer and crime investigator, as well as accounts from growing up in Philadelphia and his firsthand encounters with violence. More than just addressing the science of ballistics, Williford challenged the students to critically examine the impact of gun violence on individuals and communities.

Ballistics expert mark Williford talks to the Teva Interns and Karabots Junior Fellows

CEPI Curiosities: Shakespeare, Mozart, and the Hyrtl Skulls

Hello, fellow medico historians specializing in weirdness. Kevin again for another installment of CEPI Curiosities. I seem to have fallen into a rut of stories of mishandled corpses, as I have focused on an allegedly murdered President, a Presidential son/father son who became a medical specimen, and a fake Persian mummy. I had planned to go in a different direction this time around until I came across this recent story by The Guardian reporting that William Shakespeare himself may have been a victim of some cemeterial shenanigans.

Portrait of William Shakespeare

As part of a documentary on Shakespeare set to premiere in the UK this weekend, a team conducted an archaeological examination of William Shakespeare’s grave at the Holy Trinity Church at Stratford-Upon-Avon. Their analysis led them to the conclusion that the famous playwright’s skull was no longer with the rest of his remains. This confirmed a long-standing rumor dating back to the 19th century that Shakespeare’s skull had been taken by graverobbers in 1794.

This shocking revelation of the possibly-headless Bard, whose grave site famously curses anyone for moving his bones, reminded me of a similar story of a famous artist whose skull turned missing that involved one of the Mütter Museum’s most famous scientists: Joseph Hyrtl. Hyrtl was a Viennese anatomist who made it his life’s work to disprove phrenology, the belief that the physical dimensions of the skull correlated with personality. To that end, Hyrtl collected and measured hundreds of European skulls. He concluded that the vast disparity in dimensions of European skulls disproved any common connections to personality. His work also disproved the inherent intellectual superiority of Caucasians over other races. Phrenology was commonly used as evidence to reinforce scientific racism, as evidenced by famous phrenologists such as Samuel George Morton of the Academy of Natural Sciences (whose own collection of skulls can be viewed on display at the nearby Penn Museum). In 1874, Hyrtl sold his collection of 139 skulls to the Museum, many of which you can view on display today.

Image of the Hyrtl Skull Collection at the Mütter Museum

Among the skulls that came into Hyrtl’s possession, rumor has it that one curious cranium belonged to none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The legendary Austrian composer and musician died in poverty at the age of 35 and was buried in an unmarked grave in a Viennese common cemetery in 1791. Bodysnatchers allegedly removed his skull, which eventually came into the possession of Joseph’s brother Jacob, who willed it to his brother following his death in 1868.

However, before you rush to the Mütter Museum with your camera and your powdered wig, the alleged Mozart skull was not part of the collection Hyrtl sold to the College of Physicians. Rather, Hyrtl willed the skull to the Austrian city of Salzburg in the early 1890s. Following his death in 1894, the skull reportedly changed hands and eventually appeared in the collection of the International Mozarteum Foundation in Salzburg (read a detailed account here and here), where it remains to this day (although it is not on display to the public).

Black & white portrait of Mozart

Whether the skull really belonged to Mozart has never been definitively proven. The Mozarteum skull has been subjected to numerous forensic tests over the years, including DNA analysis and two separate facial reconstructions. These tests revealed differing conclusions over its authenticity. There is also some scholarly debate over whether the skull at the Mozartium is the one previously owned by Hyrtl, as there are inconsistencies between Hyrtl’s descriptions and the Mozarteum skull. We may never know whether the skull really was Mozart’s.

In the meantime, be sure to not lose your head and come to the Mütter Museum to check out the Hyrtl Skull Collection and many other specimens from the history of medicine. Until next time!


The Karabots Fellows Become Bone Detectives

Members of the Karabots Junior Fellows Program investigate the race, sex, and age of bones

Ever wonder how scientists are able to identify human bones? The students of the Karabots Junior Fellows Program need not wonder anymore. As part of their year-long study of forensic science, the Fellows recently learned about forensic anthropology (the science of identifying human skeletal remains) with resident expert Anna Dhody. Anna, the Curator for the Mütter Museum and a trained forensic anthropologist (astute followers of everything involving the Mütter Museum may recognize her from her regular appearances on the web series: Guess What’s on the Curator’s Desk), took the Fellows through the science of identifying human remains while telling stories of her experience as an expert in criminal cases involving human (or what appear at first glance to be human) bones.

Two of the Karabots Junior Fellows talk with Anna Dhody, Curator of the Mütter Museum, about forensic anthropology

Following their meeting with Anna, the students held a session with class regular and Mütter Museum Educator Marcy Engleman. Marcy demonstrated how to identify the race, sex, and age of human bones, encouraging them to draw their own conclusions based on observations made on replicas of the real thing.

Mütter Museum Educator MArcy Engleman explains how to identify skeletal remains

If you are a teacher and interested in your students taking part in the Bone Detectives lesson, you can schedule a session as part of a field trip to the Museum. Happy bone detecting!

CEPI Curiosities: The Washing Away of Wrongs

Kevin here again, and I hope your hunger for medico-historico oddities has yet to be satiated because I am back for another installment of CEPI Curiosities. Last time, we investigated the case of the Persian Princess, a fake historic artifact that led to a real murder investigation. This offers a great jumping point to bring us back to the subject of study for the current cohort of the Karabots Junior Fellows Program: forensic science.

The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were an instrumental period in the history of forensic science, as several cultures lent more scientific weight to death investigation. In 1194, England established an official office of the coroner to investigate cases of sudden death or murder (As an aside early English coroners also had the power to perform arrests as well as the power to collect taxes). Around the same time in Bolonga (in modern-day Italy), the first criminal cases emerged where medical professionals were brought in as expert witnesses. Medical autopsies gradually gained favor in Europe around the same time as scientists challenged earlier taboos against examining human remains.

However, the first formalized procedures for forensic investigation originated in Song Dynasty China.  In 1247 Song Ci (Sung Tzu in Wade-Giles), wrote and published the first known forensic handbook: Collected Cases of Injustices Rectified, or The Washing Away of Wrongs (Xi Yuan Ji Lu). Directed at local coroners, the book mapped out detailed guidelines for investigating sudden or mysterious deaths. At a time when coroners required no formalized training, his guidelines provided clear methods for conducting investigations.

Song based his guidelines on practical observation and inferences based on crime scene evidence and body examination. He explained how to examine bodies under certain conditions, such as buried vs. non burial, various stages of decomposition, and skeletal remains. He provided detailed guidelines for conducting autopsies, including diagrams. He showed how to identify evidence of stabbings, blunt force trauma, strangulation, the presence of various poisons, and even lightning strikes, tiger bites, and death from excessive eating, drinking, or sex. He also went into extensive detail on how to determine murder from suicide. Song Ci’s treatise served as the standard manual of forensic investigation in China for centuries and was translated into numerous languages, including English, German, French, and Japanese.

Nomenclature of Human Bones from the 1843 edition, Image in the Public Domain

Nomenclature of Human Bones from the 1843 edition, Image in the Public Domain

As interesting as The Washing Away of Wrongs is on its own as a practical manual of crime scene investigation, this wouldn’t be CEPI Curiosities without some medical weirdness. In addition to all the benefits Song Ci’s work gave for the novice or experienced coroner, Song also gave advice on how to undo the effects of death. In his penultimate section, titled “Methods for Restoring Life,” Song enumerated various tried and true methods to reanimate dead subjects. These remedies covered different specific instances of death, such as drowning, freezing, and death from fright and often involved massaging the limbs, blowing air into the victim’s ears, or forcing the (dead) subject to ingest something. For example, a victim of what Song described as the “five deaths” (death from childbirth, fright, strangulation, nightmare, and drowning, presumably not all at the same time) could be revived, even if they had been dead for more than a day, provided the following:

“First take the dead person and place him on the ground with knees bent, like the posture of a Buddhist monk in meditation. Have someone take the dead person’s hair and pull it down towards the ground. Using a bamboo or paper tube, blow a quantity of raw powdered Pinellia ternata [an herb which is a deadly toxin in its raw form]…into the nose. If he revives, administer a dose of raw ginger juice, which will counteract the poisonous effects of the Pinellia” (Sung Tz’u, The Washing Away of Wrongs, Brian E. McKnight, trans., Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, the University of Michigan, 1981, 161).

Among my favorites is a remedy he prescribed for sudden deaths by “Repulsive Factors” (most likely a heart attack) which involved “thrust[ing] the yellow heart of a leek six or seven inches into the nostril (the left for men, the right for women), causing the blood from [the part of the nostrils] between the eyes to flow. The victim will then revive”(Ibid. 158-159).

If you would like to know more, the Library of the College of Physicians has a copy of the English translation. It provides a fairly quick and definitely informative and entertaining read. Until next time!