Page last updated at 09:16 GMT, Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Pathologist Bernard Knight to stop crime writing

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Bernard Knight said he was honoured to have the building named after him

By Neil Prior
BBC News

The so-called CSI-effect is blurring the boundaries between crime fiction and reality and making the roles of the police and prosecutors more difficult, a retired pathologist has warned.

Wales' best known forensic pathologist, and celebrated author, Professor Bernard Knight, outlined his concerns on the day he opened Wales' first purpose-built forensic crime simulator at the University of Glamorgan.

He said that popular drama, including CSI and Waking The Dead, has resulted in the public's perception of what can be achieved through science galloping way ahead of reality.

As well as writing more than 30 novels and television series, Professor Knight served 43 years as the Home Office's chief pathologist, helping to convict some of Britain's most notorious murderers.

"I'm the first to admit that, at 80 next birthday and 12 years out of the job, in terms of forensic science I'm a fossil," he said.

CSI have set the bar of fantastical nonsense, and everyone else has to live up to it
Professor Bernard Knight

"But even if you accept that scientists are making enormous leaps forward all the time, the way in which forensics are portrayed on television is at best over-simplified, and at worst frankly make-believe.

"It's causing enormous difficulties for the police and Crown Prosecution Service, and bizarrely enough it's also killing the genre of crime fiction, as writers are forced to constantly up the ante.

"Jurors all think they're armchair pathologists, and therefore expect the sort of unequivocal statements of fact which they see on the telly.

"The reality is, short of an exact DNA match, for which you need to already have a comparative sample, all forensic science can do is indicate X or rule out Y - there's no magic crystal ball."

But Professor Knight worries for student's job prospects. Since the rise of forensics-based drama, applications for crime scene type courses have mushroomed by a third.

"I have enormous admiration for these youngsters, but you wonder whether there'll be the jobs for them when they're qualified," he added.

"The difference when I trained was that people usually took a general science degree, in biology, medicine or bio-chemistry, and specialised later, often on the job.

Trevor Eve and Sue Johnston in Waking The Dead

"I'm not saying that was necessarily better, but it did give you more career options, and I think my other experiences helped round me as a person."

Those other experiences include spells as a farmer, lab technician, military doctor during the insurgency in Malaya, barrister, author and professor of pathology for the University of Wales College of Medicine.

Yet growing up in Cardiff, it was dreams of farming which filled his childhood.

"I never even entertained the possibility of being a doctor, let alone a pathologist - I doubt I knew what one was," he said.

"I wanted to use my hands and work in the fields.

'Grizzly circumstances'

"For the next 50 years, as I stood over corpses in muddy ditches or on wind-swept hillsides, I thought to myself 'Well I guess I should have been more careful what I wished for'.'"

After failing to earn a place in university to study agriculture, he became a lab technician at the Cardiff Royal Infirmary.

He then did a medicine degree, and after qualifying, found himself in a field hospital in terror-strewn 1950s Malaya.

"Malaya was probably more significant for my writing career than my pathology, it taught me a hell of a lot about human nature in adversity.

"The TV series, MASH, really wasn't a million miles away in terms of the black humour people need to cope and it probably stood me in good stead in pretty grizzly circumstances in years to come."

I know murders make sexier headlines, but people forget that I contributed evidence from car crash victims which led to the government changing the law on seatbelts
Professor Bernard Knight

In 1965 Professor Knight was accepted to the panel of Home Office Pathologists, and in the intervening years he conducted over 25,000 autopsies.

It was his evidence in the cases of Fred and Rosemary West which commanded the most column inches, but he says it was a case closer to home that was his most memorable.

"Karen Price was found rolled up in a carpet on Fitzalan Embankment in 1989. In some ways it marked the point at which the old pathology met the new.

"It was the first time DNA was used to confirm identity, but the team I worked with also excelled themselves with traditional techniques - reconstructing her face from skeletal remains, and using forensic dentistry to work out her background and ethnicity."

'Sexier headlines'

Even though it was the murder cases which made him famous, it is the lives he saved of which Professor Bernard is most proud.

"I know murders make sexier headlines, but people forget that I contributed evidence from car crash victims which led to the government changing the law on seatbelts.

"Similarly we were able to highlight similarities in house fire deaths which led to legislation on flame retardant furniture.

"Don't get me wrong, there's certainly a sense of achievement in bringing a murderer to justice, but lives saved certainly count higher in my book than murderers jailed."

As an author, Prof Knight has created a 60-year cannon of work, on print and screen, covering mystery and crime from the Norman Conquest to the present.

His award-winning series of 'Crowner John' novels combine his love of history and his practical pathology experience.

'Fantastical nonsense'

But with the stage for 21st Century forensic crime fiction more Miami than Maesteg, Professor Knight feels it is time he laid his pen down alongside his scalpel.

"I've got a two book deal at the moment, about a pathologist based in the Wye Valley in 1955, but after that I think I'll call it a day . . . CSI have set the bar of fantastical nonsense, and everyone else has to live up to it.

"If that's your thing, then great, I'm sure there's a market for it, but I lived through the real forensic pathology, and I'm not interested in peddling myths."



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