The death of Sir Bernard Spilsbury

The scalpel of Scotland Yard

So great was Spilsbury’s reputation, writes Dalrymple,

that juries were inclined to accept his testimony purely because it was his. In an age of gathering disbelief, people believed in the infallibility of Spilsbury, for he represented, as no one else, the certainty of science.

The newspaper words ‘Spilsbury called in’

meant (more or less) that someone—almost always the person the police most suspected—would hang.

At the age of 70, Spilsbury committed suicide by gassing himself in his hospital room. The reasons, says Dalrymple, are a matter of surmise, and he points to several possibilities, not mutually exclusive:

  • Two of his sons had died before him, one a recently qualified doctor, killed by a bomb dropped on St Thomas’s Hospital early in the war, and the second from fulminating tuberculosis.
  • He was not close to his third son, a philosopher, who did not altogether approve of him.
  • A somewhat distant man, he was estranged from his wife.
  • Never concerned with money, he was now short of it.
  • He was no longer the pathological lion of old, and his reputation was increasingly under attack.
  • He had declined physically, suffering at least two slight strokes, and he was possibly aware that he might be going senile.
  • He had long cherished the desire of writing a great textbook, based on his vast experience of 25,000 postmortems—his apologia pro vita sua—but now realised that he would never do so. He published nothing and was responsible for no definitive scientific advance.
  • It may be that he recognised that he had helped send some innocent men to the scaffold, and, a religious man, he felt a deep remorse.
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