Pathologist who worked on many famous murder inquiries and gave evidence in the Turin Shroud case
Published 20/11/2011 | 05:00
Derek Barrowcliff, who has died aged 92, worked as a pathologist on a number of post-war murder cases, including the bizarre Stratford Tombstone Murder of 1954 in which a local midwife was found drowned in the River Avon.
Olive Bennett's scarf had been used to anchor her body to a heavy Victorian tombstone that had been uprooted from the graveyard and thrown into the nearby river.
Scotland Yard was called in. Det Ch Supt John Capstick, one of the best-known detectives of the day, relied on Barrowcliff's post-mortem findings. These confirmed that the midwife, 45, had spent the evening before her death drinking in local pubs.
To all intents and purposes Barrowcliff was appointed a Home Office pathologist on the strength of his work on this baffling case. The murder remains unsolved to this day.
Barrowcliff's work as a forensic specialist was highlighted again in 1969 during the Stoneleigh Abbey poisoning case, when he detected signs of arsenic in the hair of the victim -- the wife of the chauffeur employed at the Abbey. The case attracted much national attention due to the assertion of Lord Leigh (the Abbey's owner) that his chauffeur was innocent of the crime. In the event, the chauffeur was convicted in 1970 and jailed for life -- his motive having been an infatuation with a 20-year-old typist.
Barrowcliff, who performed the post-mortem, overturned a GP's initial finding on the death certificate that the victim had died of gastroenteritis. As one of his students later wrote, Barrowcliff "kept his diagnostic antenna twitching"; he was the only one of 20 doctors who examined the body to suspect arsenic poisoning.
He was back in the limelight later in the Seventies, when his research on the propensity for corpses to bleed was quoted in the controversy over the authenticity of the so-called Shroud of Turin. Barrowcliff gave an expert opinion in the case of Hans Naber, a German black marketeer and convicted fraudster, who claimed to have had a vision in 1947 in which Jesus told him He had survived the Crucifixion to rise again from the tomb.
Naber claimed too much blood was present on the shroud for it to have swathed a dead body. Corpses do not bleed, he asserted -- or at least the large quantity of blood on the shroud did not correspond to the blood emissions from a typical corpse. In his eyes, the shroud proved that Christ had only been wounded.
But Barrowcliff had shown that bodies bleed after death for a time, and demonstrated that cuts on the back of the head of a corpse (comparable to the wounds made by the Crown of Thorns) "would bleed freely, continuously".
Derek Ford Barrowcliff was born on April 6, 1919, in Nottingham, but brought up in Manchester, where he attended grammar school.
From there he went to University College, Oxford, to read medicine. In the late Thirties, he made his way to the Pyrenees to assist in the relief work for those fleeing the Spanish Civil War.
After qualifying he served in the RAMC (1947-49), stationed at Colchester.
Appointed to Warwick Hospital in 1950, he became consultant and head of the path lab, a post he held until he neared retirement, remaining all the while a staunch supporter of the NHS.
Over the years his casebook acquired some oddities, such as one dating from 1960 when he was called in to examine the skeleton of a boy, aged five, which was found embalmed in a box in a house in Leamington.
The child's remains were thought to have lain there for at least 50 years.
The top of the skull was missing suggesting to Barrowcliff that the child had been the subject of a post-mortem examination, and then embalmed and prepared for burial. But for sentimental reasons, he suggested, the boy had never been buried.
Although essentially a histopathologist (examining tissue for disease), Barrowcliff was equally highly regarded as a specialist in the examination of disease in cells, or cytology.
A midlife convert to Roman Catholicism, Barrowcliff had an unswerving commitment to the rights of the unborn child. Active in his faith and as a member of the St Vincent de Paul Society, he was still, until he was nearly 90, visiting the elderly in his parish.
When he was invited to be an expert witness in connection with the Shroud of Turin, Barrowcliff was delighted to be able to combine his religious principles with his scientific practice.
His overriding passion -- walking -- was one that had been fostered first by his father, and then by a teacher. This early enthusiasm was to continue throughout his life, and he was walking in the woods near Valbonne, France, when he died.
For the past 10 years he had devoted himself to looking after his wife, Moune, who suffers from dementia.
He was determined to continue caring for her until, as he so disarmingly put it, he himself "joined the majority".
Derek Barrowcliff is survived by his wife and their six children.