How A Harvard Doctor’s Sordid Murder Launched Modern Forensic Anthropology

Kristina Killgrove in Forbes:

ScreenHunter_2173 Aug. 29 10.57The history of modern forensic anthropology is a bit murky. As an applied science rather than a “pure” one, forensics was shunned for decades, its findings inadmissible in court. But the 19th century murder of a Harvard Medical School doctor launched the field, revolutionized law in the process, and began our longstanding fascination with TV shows like CSI and Bones.

The story starts just before Thanksgiving in 1849, when Dr. George Parkman went missing. Parkman was from a wealthy Boston family, an old-timey Doogie Howser who entered Harvard at age 15. He went to medical school in Scotland, returning after the War of 1812. Parkman donated some land in Boston to Harvard Medical College so that the school could relocate from Cambridge. He was also well-known for lending money from his considerable fortune and for walking around town to collect on those debts.

A professor of chemistry and geology at Harvard, John White Webster, was one of those debtors. He had been having financial problems, requiring him to give up his family’s Cambridge mansion. Webster’s salary as a lecturer at Harvard simply didn’t cover his grandiose lifestyle. So Webster borrowed $400 from Parkman in 1842. Seems like a paltry sum, but the equivalent in today’s dollars is nearly $10,000.

More here.