The Facts of DEATH
Forensic anthropologist Alison Galloway examines skeletal remains to piece together the circumstances of death
Alison Galloway recalls the first time she saw a dead body. It was her second semester of graduate school in anthropology at the University of Arizona, and she was called to the morgue to examine the victim of a light plane crash. He was badly burned, and his skull had been shattered by the impact. It was a gruesome scene, but Galloway was riveted, driven by the task of identifying the remains.
That was 16 years and 300 bodies ago.
Now at the top of her profession, Galloway is one of only 50 highly trained forensic anthropologists in the country who are regularly called to accident and crime scenes to gather evidence. Unlike medical examiners, who work with soft tissue, Galloway was trained in physical anthropology. She examines bones for the clues that help her make critical judgments about the nitty-gritty facts of death: Who died, when, how, and where.
Though not at liberty to discuss the details of individual high-profile cases she has handled, Galloway is part of the elite corps whose members have identified victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, the crash of TWA flight 800 off the coast of Long Island, and victims of suicide bombers in Jerusalem.
An associate professor of anthropology at UCSC, Galloway conducts research on the effects of reproduction on the skeleton, but her academic and professional interests are complementary. Her university research gives her forensic work unparalleled depth, and her fieldwork addresses a key problem: In the lab, human skeletal remains can be hard to come by, but that hasn't been the case in the field.
"Often in homicides, a criminal has tried to silence any voice the victim had," says Galloway. "We're the last chance that victim has to say what happened, and so we feel the weight of that responsibility."
At the site, Galloway uses basic archaeological techniques and tools, including shovels, picks, and a camera, to document the site and recover evidence. Every detail is examined, including clothing, insects (the presence of which can help establish the time of death), and soil, which is screened for small items like rings--and bullets.
In the lab, dental records are the most reliable tool for establishing identity. Then, by reconstructing events such as the nature and sequence of injuries, Galloway works to re-create the final moments of a human life. The medical causes of death are numerous, but the manner of death falls into one of five categories: suicide, homicide, accidental, natural causes, and unknown, the catchall for those who take the mystery to their graves.
It's work that requires focus, an eye for detail, and a strong stomach, says Galloway, who concedes that it also helps to have a bad sense of smell. "I habituate to bad smells very quickly, so after ten seconds, I don't smell them anymore," she explains. "It's part of what allows me to do this work."
Many of the cases Galloway handles involve people living on the margins of society, including the homeless, mentally ill, drug addicts, and alcoholics. Often, their disappearances go unnoticed. "They are what we call 'the missing but not the missed,'" says Galloway.
On the other end of the spectrum are the high-profile cases that attract widespread media attention. Galloway works behind the scenes, out of view of television cameras and beyond the reach of newspaper reporters, but she concedes that the presence of journalists can add to the pressure she already feels.
Whether at the scene of a plane crash, an automobile accident, or a grisly murder, Galloway approaches each case with the same methodical professionalism that has established her reputation. Less skilled investigators may be compelled by the "yuck factor" to rush through a job, getting the body in the bag but overlooking items or circumstances that could later prove vital.
Douglas Ubelaker, curator of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., and former president of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, says Galloway brings a unique breadth of knowledge to her work in forensics.
"Many forensic anthropologists specialize in that area, but Alison is one of relatively few who has always performed her work in the broader context of physical anthropology," said Ubelaker, who for 20 years has been the FBI's primary consultant in forensic anthropology. "That makes her work of especially high quality."
Over the years, Galloway has taught many undergraduates who were eager to go into forensic anthropology, but she is careful about whom she encourages to pursue a career. Mystery novels and "real-crime" television have glamorized the work, but they leave out the grueling nature of the job. The fieldwork is physically and mentally exhausting. It is followed by hours in the lab and the long process of writing a report. Lonely work that demands focused concentration, it carries with it the isolation of being the sole individual who makes the final determination. "Sometimes you feel like you're walking out on this very narrow plank," says Galloway.
To live with that responsibility, says Galloway, you must be driven by a keen interest and maintain your skills at a very high level, which requires handling a lot of bodies. That dedication is not for everyone. Nearly half the students who enroll in doctoral programs in forensic anthropology drop out.
And the work takes an emotional toll, too. Galloway's cases often involve homicide, and she concedes that it can be draining to deal with such firsthand knowledge of the human capacity to inflict suffering. At the end of a long day, it is comforting to come home and hug her young daughter.
"Most of the individuals I work with have not had an easy life," says Galloway. "I feel a responsibility to the person--not to the defense or the prosecution, but to the individual. Sometimes I wonder if I'm the only advocate they've ever had."