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Dr Susan Black: A Profile

THURSDAY 13th June 2002
As a third year medical student, Susan Black was given a corpse to examine from top to toe. She was exhilarated by the experience of "knowing what we look like on the inside".

Now as a leading forensic anthropologist, she is providing some of the most damning evidence at the international trial of Slobodan Milosevic, the first head of state to be tried for crimes against humanity.

"Giving back a name to a nameless corpse"

One of the medical team working in the war-ravaged landscapes of eastern Europe, Black's work involves dissecting human remains to the point where they can be identified or, as she describes it, "giving back a name to a nameless corpse". So far she has exhumed more than 1,000 victims, and been awarded the OBE for her untiring effort.

Susan Black was first asked to provide the police with assistance when she was an anthropology PhD student at St Thomas's in London. As well as becoming an increasingly respected forensic expert across London, she co-wrote with Dr Louise Scheuer the definitive textbook on the bones of young children.

But while her workshops have attracted students from across the world and she thrives on teaching, Black has shied away from the politics of academia. She has remained freelance and was the natural person to call on after the Serbian attacks of 1999 left the villages of Kosovo without their human identity.

Among the charred remains of the victims of ethnic cleansing, Black searches for unique human fragments. She hopes this will help families conduct proper burials, move on with their lives and that justice can somehow be served.

Family life meets forensics

All this must seem a world away from the cosy Scottish fishing village north of Aberdeen, where Black's most important job is "providing a good childhood for my daughters, and showing them to respect themselves and one another". On her return from her working trips and back in the family fold, Black doesn't dwell on her experiences, but appreciates her loved ones all the more. Adjusting is a gradual process. Her daughter describes Black's "little black box in her head", where the horror is stored away. Her husband knows not to ask.

A self-professed hermit, Black is protective of her children in a world, where violence can always invade. But while her job gives her first hand experience of "the disappointing nature of humanity", about her own tasks, she has no qualms.

She realises she has a job to do, and must refrain from moral judgement if she is to be an effective forensic practitioner. Of her deliberate emotional detachment in the face of such devastating spectacles, she remains pragmatic. Death and taxes are unavoidable," she says, "I'm far more afraid of the living."