'Visible Proofs' exhibition on forensic medicine opens at NIH

Traces history of forensics, roots of "CSI"-style crime solving

Who figured out that fingerprints were unique forms of identification? How did detectives capture crime scenes in the days before photography? How did scientists learn to collect and analyze the DNA evidence we so regularly rely on in court today? What can stages of body decomposition and insect infestation tell us about a cadaver?

A new exhibition, opening at NIH's National Library of Medicine, traces the history of forensic medicine--the efforts of physicians, surgeons and other specialists to translate views of bodies and body parts into hard evidence or "visible proofs" that testify on behalf of the victims of violent crime and against the guilty. Visible Proofs: Forensic Views of the Body opens Thursday, February 16, 2006, 10:00 a.m. with a special program featuring several of the persons portrayed in the exhibition. Special press previews are available by appointment, too, February 8-15. (Please see end of this release for details on opening event, press previews, exhibition hours and location, and sample images.)

"Visible Proofs pulls back the curtain on the field of forensic medicine, which is so much a part of our lives today through the parade of popular crime shows, novels and movies," noted Donald A.B. Lindberg, MD, Director of the National Library of Medicine. "But this exhibition is rooted entirely in fact, not fiction. We reach all the way back to medieval times to show how medical professionals around the world have, over the centuries, developed methods for seeing inside the body and making visible what the untrained, unequipped eye cannot."

"This rich tapestry of stories and scientific information is quite contemporary, too," explained Elizabeth Fee, PhD, Director of NLM's History of Medicine Division. "Today, we increasingly rely on DNA analysis, whether to persuade judges and juries or to help identify the victims of disasters like Hurricane Katrina. How has that science evolved? Visible Proofs shows how forensic views of the body--in the laboratory, at the crime scene, and in courts of law--and views of forensic science itself have evolved through time and changed our world."

Items on display include:

  • Surgical instruments used in the autopsy of Abraham Lincoln
  • Some of the first medical treatises on forensics, dating back to the 1600s
  • A human heart with a bullet hole in it, a stomach poisoned by arsenic, and a kidney punctured by a fatal knife wound
  • The famous "Nutshell Studies" dollhouse crime scenes, based on true cases and created in the 1940s as a forensic teaching tool
  • Fingerprints from the first investigation to use fingerprints to help secure a conviction for murder--the 1892 Francesca Rojas case
  • Film clips of actual forensic autopsies

Among the stories told in the exhibition are:

  • How, in 1998, DNA evidence identified the Vietnam War's "Unknown Soldier" as Lt. Michael Blassie of St. Louis, Missouri
  • How American anthropologist Clyde Snow and a group of courageous Argentinean students invented the field of human rights forensics in the mid-1980s. Evidence uncovered in their excavations of mass graves led to the convictionof members of Argentina's murderous military junta, and the Argentinean effort became the model for investigations of political and ethnic murders and atrocities around the globe
  • How Kirk Bloodsworth, a crab fisherman from Maryland's Eastern Shore, became the first person convicted of murder to be exonerated by DNA evidence

"Visible Proofs: Forensic Views of the Body," has an Experience Zone, where detectives of all ages can explore forensics firsthand. Participants can work with recreated miniature murder scenes, use black lights to test for evidence of ingerprints and bloodstains, examine human bones for tale-telling characteristics, and use software to create a composite face from hundreds of facial features.

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The National Library of Medicine, the world's largest medical library, is located on the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. The NIH is an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services.

"Visible Proofs: Forensic Views of the Body," is located on the first floor of the Library, Building 38, at Rockville Pike and Center Drive. Limited pay parking available; the exhibition is approximately 300 yards from the Medical Center stop on Metro's Red Line.

"Visible Proofs" is open to the public and admission is free. Visiting hours are: 8:30 a.m. - 5:00 p.m., Monday-Friday and 8:30 a.m. - 2:00 p.m. Saturdays through February 16, 2008. NLM is closed Sundays and federal holidays. For directions, security policies and other visitor information, please consult the Library's Web site: www.nlm.nih.gov/about/visitor.html.

The February 16 opening program and ribbon-cutting is at 10:00 a.m. in the Library's Lister Hill Center Auditorium. To attend the event, or for press preview tours February 8-15, please call Kathy Cravedi, 301.496.6308, or e-mail publicinfo@nlm.nih.gov.

Sample images from the exhibition, are at: www.nlm.nih.gov/news/press_releases/visibleproofphotos.html

Copyright, Privacy, Accessibility U.S. National Library of Medicine, 8600 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, MD 20894 National Institutes of Health, Health & Human Services


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