The grisly and ghoulish side of academic research

Matthew Reisz reflects that some jobs are really not for him – even on Halloween

October 31, 2015
Human skull in grass
Source: PA

In our occasional Outer Limits series, we celebrate the academics who go well beyond the call of duty to carry out their research.

My colleagues and I have much enjoyed profiling the bold men and women who have lived in the most remote, uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous conditions, ventured into war zones, investigated drug gangs or back-street dog fighting. One even ended up in jail, perhaps because his work on low-cost private education in India had offended interested parties, although more likely as an attempt to “shake down” a rich foreigner.

Not only have they all lived to tell the tale, but they have often brought back fascinating insights they simply could not have obtained otherwise.

While I certainly admire such researchers, I’ll freely admit that most of them have jobs I’m very glad I’ve never had to do. Yet although today is Halloween, and we are all meant to be embracing our ghoulish side, it is the people I profile in next week’s issue – working in some of the six American “body farms” where forensic archaeologists study the process of human decomposition – whose research sounds among the most disturbing.

Yes, police investigating a murder need to ascertain time of death as accurately as possible, so it is genuinely useful to know, for example, just how quickly vultures can tear apart a corpse. But I’m not sure that I would want to be the one obtaining such data, nor would I want my own body or the body of a loved one to be used as experimental material.

Fortunately, the directors of the three centres I spoke to were extremely robust in explaining the importance of their work and in confronting my own squeamishness and assumptions about “natural” ways of treating dead bodies. So all credit to them for working on an important frontier of knowledge. But I think I’ll still stick to my day job.

Read Matthew’s feature on body farms

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