Bernard Henry Spilsbury was born on 16th May 1877, in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, England, and was educated at schools in Leamington Spa, Manchester and London, and then at Magdalen College, Oxford. He completed his medical training at St Mary's Hospital, London.
Whilst at St Mary's, Spilsbury worked as an assistant pathology demonstrator, under the influence of Augustus Joseph Pepper , and joined Pepper, Arthur Pearson Luff and William Wilcox, who advised the Home Office on toxicological matters.
Spilsbury became a household name following his appearance as an expert witness in the trial of Hawley Harvey Crippen (1910), and subsequently appeared as a witness in a series of sensational trials;
- Frederick Henry Seddon (1911-1912), who was convicted of poisoning Eliza Barrow with arsenic from fly-papers - read about the case on the Old Bailey online (https://bit.ly/7O1Zy9);
- George Joseph Smith (1915), who was convicted of drowning 3 wives (the 'brides in the bath' murders)(see photo at Getty images);
- Herbert Rowse Armstrong (1921), who was convicted of poisoning his wife with arsenic (see photos at Getty images);
- Norman Thorne (1926), who was convicted of killing Elsie Cameron (see photos at Getty images);
- Alfred Rouse (1930), who was convicted of killing a man and setting his body on fire in a car, on bonfire night
Spilsbury was renowed as a formidable expert witness, perceived as 'invincible' by some, and once referred to - accidentally - as 'Saint Bernard'.
He performed a reputed 25,000 post mortem examinations in his career, and kept case cards detailing cases that he wished to include in a textbook; this book never materialised, Spilsbury committed suicide in his laboratory at University College, London on 17th December 1947. Sir Bentley Purchase held the Inquest into his death.
It was a particularly unpleasant corpse, an exhumation case ... I was afraid I should make a fool of myself ... so I put on a cigarette and tried to think of something else. After a while Sir Bernard came in. He sniffed twice, looked round the room, and said 'You mustn't smoke, please, Johnson. I can't smell the smells I want to smell.' He then bent down over the corpse and sniffed away as if it was a rose garden.
Comments made by a police officer, recalled by Keith Simpson 1961
I have never claimed to be God - but merely his locum on his weekends off.
Ascribed to Sir Bernard Spilsbury by Dalrymple T. BMJ 2010;340:c1384