what people have said about Spilsbury


As a man ...

As a man I knew very little of Spilsbury. I doubt if he had many close firends. He seemed to me to be too immersed in his work to be very interested in other matters or people.

Sir Travers Humphries (recalled by Keith Simpson 1961)

As an expert witness ...

I am a martyr to Spilsburyism.

Norman Thorne 1925

Experience and natural gifts for the work he had chosen marked the man so early that academic qualifications were unimportant.

Keith Simpson 1961

He had talent and honesty of purpose ... He used simple phrases that all (including the jurors, Counsel and the occupant of the Bench) could understand. ... He thought before he spoke ... If asked a question, he made sure that he understood it before he answered it ... He called a bruise a bruise ... He did not confuse his facts with his conclusions. It was this clarity of decision that labelled him comparatively early in his career as one whom reliance could be placed.

Sir William Bentley Purchase (recalled by Keith Simpson 1961)

He was not one whose opinion changed once it was well founded, or whose evidence seemed to bear more than one facet as the case proceeded. What he said in the first instance he stuck to, and he was able to do this because he knew that he was right ...

Sir William Bentley Purchase (recalled by Keith Simpson 1961)

Spilsbury, like the rest of us, could make mistakes. He was unique, I think, in that he never admitted making a mistake. Once he had committed himself to an opinion he would never change it.

Sir Sydney Smith (recalled by Keith Simpson 1961)

very brilliant and very famous, but fallible ... and very, very obstinate.

Sir Sydney Smith 1959

Do you remember Dr Spilsbury? Do you remember how he stood and the way in which he gave evidence? Do you remember how, if there were any qualification to be made which told in favour of the defence, he always gave it without being asked for it? Did you ever see a witness who more thoroughly satisfied you that he was absolutely impartial, absolutely fair, absolutely indifferent as to whether his evidence told for the one side or the other when he was giving evidence in chief or when he was being cross examined?

Justice Charles Darling in his summing up in the Armstrong case (recalled by Keith Simpson 1961)

Spilsbury in the witness-box was to my mind the ideal witness. He was unemotional, simple in speech because he was clear in mind, absolutely fair, quite indifferent to the result of a case, paying little attention to those parts of the evidence which did not affect the medical or scientific aspects of the matter. He spared no pains in seeking out anything, fact, theory or latest discovery, which could properly affect his judgment.

Sir Travers Humphreys (recalled by Keith Simpson 1961)

We can all admire attainment, take off our hats to ability, acknowledge the high position that a man has won in his sphere. But it is a long way to go if you have to say that, when a man says something, there can be no room for error. (Thorne case)


It will be a sorry day for the administration of criminal justice in this land if we are to be thrust into such a position that, because Sir Bernard Spilsbury expresses an opinion, it is of such weight that it is impossible to question it, and it must be accepted by the jury ... (Fox case)

J.D. Cassels (recalled by Keith Simpson 1961)

His pronouncements were invested with the force of dogma, and it was blasphemy to hint that he might conceivably be wrong.

Edgar Lustgarten (recalled by Keith Simpson 1961)

His evidence in the case against Rouse was, to say the least, so open to the criticism that it was not scientific that it is surprising Norman Birkett for the Crown, did not refuse to use it. Speaking of tests for carbon monoxide Sir Bernard said:

"I found fluid lying free among the organs. It was a bright fluid, probably a mixture of blood and water. I subjected that liquid to chemical and spectroscopic tests. As a result I found that the fluid contained the gas known as carbon monoxide, and that that gas was present in it in large amounts."

Such looseness should not have gone unopposed even then. It would be unthinkable now.

Keith Simpson 1961

Several murder convictions based, directly or indirectly, on Spilsbury's evidence must now be regarded as unsafe. In particular, terrible miscarriages of justice have been exposed in the cases of David Greenwood and Sydney Fox, both of which demand an official pardon. The murder convictions of Norman Thorne, John Robinson and Henry Seymour are now in doubt. Likewise, Spilsbury's dogmatically expressed opinions in the Crippen and Armstrong trials can no longer be sustained.

Andrew Rose (in Lethal Witness 2007)

Search site

© 2009 forensicmed.co.uk All rights reserved.