I once heard a medical examiner at a dinner party say: “If you really want to learn forensic pathology, do a rotation in New York City, all kinds of great ways to die there.” It stuck with me. And then I moved there.
Maybe it’s my South African heritage, but I’ve always been a little paranoid. It started when I was teeny tiny and I’d check under my bed (it had a huge gap) after I watched something scary, and most definitely if I was home alone. Then it manifested when we lived on Eaton Place, a street known for its (some might say) eerily quiet calm and dark back mews. And then, because I took forever to pass my driving test and was a bit rubbish on the tube (wink wink), the humble British taxi became my scare-mare. I started pulling out a small strand of hair every time I got in a cab, thinking that if for whatever reason I was squired away forever, a piece of me would be glaringly imprinted on the linoleum floor. My theory: everyone loves a mystery. Or, more specifically, everyone loves an ingeniously solved mystery. But how about just being clever and preempting the mystery entirely?
So by now, you’re thinking I’m slightly quirky – or is that too generous a word – but hey, it never hurts to be cautious. Hear me out though. Keratin, the main component of human scalp hair, contains all 21 amino acids, but the ratios depend on the body’s biochemistry and differ from person to person. Hydrolyzing the amino acids and measuring their quantities yields a profile that, when compared with a database, gives an indication of a person’s sex, age, body mass index, and region of origin. Boom.
Now, sophisticated analytical techniques are giving hair a new role in forensics. The goal is no longer matching a suspect to a crime scene but using hair to infer physical characteristics or even the travel history of an unknown criminal or victim. Boom, boom.
The ratios of isotopes—atoms of the same element that differ in the number of neutrons—in hair can also yield clues. The ratios of hydrogen and oxygen isotopes in drinking water vary from region to region and are also captured in hair. As a result, isotopic analysis of hair can provide clues about where a person has been in the previous months—or years, if the hair is long enough (mine most certainly is). In 2008, a Utah company called Isoforensics discovered that “Saltair Sally,” an unidentified woman found dead in Utah in 2000, had repeatedly moved between the Pacific Northwest and the Salt Lake City area before she died—a clue that helped identify her in 2012.
I really think there is something to be said for leaving a little lock strewn around on your travels, a stab at fate no less. Governing our minds certainly requires a sparkle of madness and my goodness, I got me some hair to play with.