MedHum Mondays Presents: Spanning Genres

Nature and Time, copyright Schillace

Q: What do you call a medical humanities scholar having an identity crisis?

A: Interdisciplinary.

I’m a PhD, a researcher and curator for a medical history museum, an editor for an anthropology journal, and a fiction writer. I’m frequently asked how that’s even possible… surely these things are too disparate to work?

Not as much as you might think. I spent this past weekend at the 40th annual World Fantasy Convention in Washington D.C. If you’re not familiar, WFC is an annual gathering of professional writers, editors, agents, collectors, and others interested in the field of Light and Dark Fantasy art and literature. It’s also a wonderful place to meet and catch up with your fiction colleagues, and in that way, is not unlike most of the academic conferences I attend. There are other similarities, too; for instance, I sat in on a panel about the ethical treatment of historical figures in fiction–and that’s not radically different from the discussions I encountered at the American Association for the History of Medicine. When we write history, fiction or non-fiction, we find ourselves having to channel key figures, to hear and recreate their voices, and to do so without compromising truth.

Oh, there’s that tricky word again… “truth.” It’s often accompanied with it’s equally problematic brother, objectivity. In a recent conversation about my cultural history of death (Feb 2015), I was asked how I could be objective if I was also choosing what to represent, which stories to tell, which details to include…and which to leave out. “I’m not objective,” I explained. “No one is.”

Trial history of Lizzy Borden

But that’s not the whole story, either, is it? In my life as an academic–with my PhD in literary history and my curatorial work for the medical history museum–I am always striving for objectivity. Historians are sticklers for facts and details. But even with all the facts aligned, we must tell a story, provide a narrative. And on the other side, when writing fiction, we nonetheless aim to provide a kind of truth, however we understand that.

“We have a responsibility to the collective understanding of historical figures,” said panelist David Coe (D.B. Jackson). “I don’t own Samuel Adams. If I want to use him in my fiction, I have to be faithful to what history says about him, and how he is received and understood by the public.” Historians also have an ethical responsibility; if facts emerge that cast a historical figure in a radically different light, we cannot be afraid to share this new information. On the other hand, we must never manufacture our own conjecture as though it were factual. (A case in point might be the spurious claim that 18th century anatomist and physician William Hunter murdered his patients, something which has been thoroughly debunked from numerous quarters, but which still occasionally shows up in print as “fact.” For more, see here.)

The Analysis Machine, copyright Schillace

Fiction and non-fiction writing may seem divergent, but my work on the academic and non-academic side of the word processor bring me often to the same set of questions. My work on the anthropology journal brings me back to them, too, as does museum exhibit creation, where we must tell big stories in small spaces. Curiosity and attention to what we include and exclude, what stories we tell and which ones we don’t, should not be niche specific. Ethics and narrative don’t just belong to medical humanities. They belong to humanity, period.

So, here’s to conferences and colleagues that remind us of our mutual interests–and our mutual needs. Do I sometimes feel I’m suffering an identity crisis? Somewhere between grading papers, writing fiction, proofing monographs and editing anthropology…yes, yes, I do. But that’s okay. The more people I meet, the more I am convinced that, deep down, it’s what we are all doing all the time.

MedHum Monday Presents: A Review of Skeleton Crew

FictionReboot2Welcome back to MedHum Monday! Today we present a review of Skeleton Crew by Deborah Halber, science writer for MIT. Taking a good look at forensics history, but also at how technology today helps to re-open unsolved cases, the book invites us to question what counts as expertise in a modern, digital world.


Deborah Halber’s The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths are Solving America’s Coldest Cases (2014, Simon & Schuster)
Review by Danielle Nielsen

indexDeborah Halber’s The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths are Solving America’s Coldest Cases (2014, Simon & Schuster) explores the networks of part-time Internet detectives who use databases, missing person reports, and often gut instincts to identify decades-old unidentified bodies. Alongside these part-time sleuths are the law enforcement agencies and officers, from local police to coroners to state forensic anthropologists, saddled with the remains but often hesitant to work the public to solve these cases.

Halber’s interest in the Skeleton Crew stems from a May 2010 news story in The Boston Globe that included a sketch of the Lady of the Dunes, a young, unidentified female victim, found in the mid-1970s in Provincetown, Massachusetts. In her own Internet research about the Lady of the Dunes, Halber discovered a network of websites populated by photographs, drawings, and clay and digital re-creations of unidentified bodies and their faces, networks that Halber deemed “a Facebook for the dead.” Halber’s driving question of the book, “Who, I wondered, would go out of their way to create or peruse an Internet morgue?” led her to discover those people, the Skeleton Crew, who spend their available hours perusing these Internet morgues looking to identify these bodies.

Through fifteen chapters, a prologue, and epilogue, Halber deftly interweaves stories about unidentified bodies and the civilians or citizen-investigators who have helped identify remains. The framing narrative for Halber’s investigations is Tent Girl, a young woman whose body was found in eastern Kentucky on May 17, 1968, by Wilbur Riddle, a local well driller. She was wrapped in a tarp and dumped next to a major highway with no identification. Tent Girl would not receive a name or be returned to her family until April 1998 after Todd Williams, a Tennessee factory worker and Riddle’s son-in-law, devoted years searching for clues about Tent Girl’s identity. It was not, however, until the advent of the Internet and easily accessible and searchable databases that Williams would be able to solve the case.

In addition to the Lady of the Dunes and Tent Girl, we meet other unidentified persons and their Internet champions, and Halber chronicles the stories of the Doe Network, one of the most well-known sleuthing communities, the National Missing and Unidentified Missing Persons System, or NamUs, a site for which Todd Matthews now serves as an administrator, and dead sites like the Missing Persons Cold Case Network, Websleuths, and ColdCases.

Halber speaks not only only with the citizen-sleuths, but she also interviews government employees and law enforcement agents like Dr. Marcella Fierro, Virginia’s chief medical examiner and early pioneer and advocate for the unidentified; Mathew Hickman, a statistician for the Bureau of Justice Statistics tasked with determining the number of unidentified remains in the United States; and Mike Murphy, the Clark County, Nevada, coroner.

Home of Las Vegas, Clark County recovers ten thousand bodies every year, a number of which remain unidentified. In his role as coroner, Murphy posted the first government-issued website with photographs or drawings of the unidentified housed in the Clark County morgue, encouraging other states and municipalities to do so and allowing the Skeleton Crew to more effectively match missing persons with unidentified remains.

Part detective non-fiction, part ethnography, Halber introduces readers to a community that is not without its own internal drama. By the final chapters, we learn of the internal fights within the Doe Network over procedures concerning the ability to contact families and law enforcement officials. We understand the suspicious nature with which some law enforcement officials view members of the Skeleton Crew, both named and unnamed. We also see Todd Williams, an administrator for both Doe Network and NamUs overthrown at the Doe Network and banned from the community, as well as others rejected by their community members.

A science writer for MIT, Halber tells the story of these fascinating web sleuths, both humanizing the searchers and the unidentified remains, some of which, like the Lady of the Dunes, remain unidentified by the book’s end, and the scientific research and clear explanations resonate with a general audience. Halber’s Skeleton Crew reveals often unnoted or unnoticed citizens who devote countless hours to skimming missing person boards, looking through photographs and drawings, and using their instincts and research skills to make connections and return these bodies to their families.

About the Reviewer:
Danielle Nielsen is Assistant Professor of English at Murray State University where she teaches courses in composition and rhetoric, professional and technical writing, and British literature.