Lives of the fellows

Bernard Henry (Sir) Spilsbury

b.16 May 1877 d.17 December 1947
Kt(1923) BA Oxon(1899) MA Oxon(1905) BM BCh Oxon(1905) MRCP(1924) FRCP(1931)

Bernard Spilsbury was born at Leamington, the son of James Spilsbury, a chemical manufacturer, who married Marion Joy, of Stafford. From University College School, London, he had his later education at Manchester Grammar School. At Magdalen College, Oxford, he took his B.A. in 1899, and graduated B.M. six years later, after studying medicine at St. Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, to which he returned for a short time to work on bacteriology under Sir Almroth Wright. His later interest in morbid histology was largely due to his association with A. J. Pepper, A. P. Luff and Sir William Wilcox, the Home Office criminal investigation experts, while holding the post of morbid histologist at St. Mary’s and St. Bartholomew’s Hospitals. In 1910 he succeeded Pepper as pathologist to the Home Office.

The famous Crippen trial, on which he worked with Wilcox to show that the murder was due to hyoscine hydrobromide, brought him the first blaze of publicity which he deplored in every succeeding trial at which he appeared, and this was undoubtedly why he assumed an austere and frigid manner to all but his intimate friends. To them he was known as a man of wide culture, with a love of flowers and music, who could show as much kindness to an articled clerk as to a promising young barrister.

Spilsbury was a man of infinite patience in his search for evidence, which he could sift with an uncanny flair for the upper limits of reasonable inference, and present with such patent honesty and simple explanation as to defy the attacks of the most brilliant defence counsels. His deep knowledge of forensic medicine brought him many academic lectures such as the Lettsomian of the Medical Society of London, and the Croonian at the College in 1936. He was examiner to six universities. In 1933 he was elected president of the Medico-Legal Society, of which he was secretary for many years, immediately following his vice-presidency of the section of forensic medicine at the centenary meeting of the British Medical Association.

His last years were sad and lonely. He was overworked and in poor health. In 1920 he had married Edith Horton. They had one daughter and three sons, of whom he lost two to his great sorrow. It takes but little charity to understand why he committed suicide after a mental breakdown on 17 December 1947.

Richard R Trail

[Brit.med.J., 1947, 2, 1059 (p); Lancet, 1947, 2, 965 (p); 1948, 1, 45; N.Y. Times, 18 Dec. 1947; Time, 1947, 50, 52-3; Times, 18, 19, 22 Dec. 1947; Univ. Coll. Hosp. Mag., 1948, 33, 6-7; D.N.B. 1941-1950, 814-16; D. G. Browne and E. V. Tullett. Bernard Spilsbury: his life and cases. London, 1951 (p); L. Randall. The Famous cases of Sir Bernard Spilsbury. London, 1936.]

(Volume V, page 387)

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