All Bones About It: The job of a forensic anthropologist

A Profile of Dr. Bruce Anderson of the School of Anthropology by Hope Miller, Student Science Journalist

Dr. Bruce Anderson spends more time studying the deceased than the living. As a forensic anthropologist for the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, he identifies corpses and determines how people died. He also teaches anthropology students at the University of Arizona how to solve such mysteries.

It was a love of puzzles that led Anderson to this line of work. “I always enjoyed working puzzles … I’m pretty good [at] memorizing what different pieces look like and fitting them back into the whole,” he said. “If you have an aptitude for that as a kid, you probably have a leg up doing the kind of work that I do.”

As a forensic anthropologist, it’s not enough to simply memorize all 206 bones in the human body. Instead, he said, you need to “memorize quarter-sized, half dollar-sized fragments of those bones” and then understand how the pieces fit together.

Anderson made the first moves toward his career when he decided to pursue a degree in anthropology instead of engineering at Arizona State University. A defining moment occurred when he first heard about the forensic anthropology profession, which was an emerging field in the 1970s. Intrigued, Anderson came to the University of Arizona in 1984 for graduate school to study forensic anthropology.

It was in the Old Pueblo that Anderson met his mentor, Dr. Walter Birkby, who was the previous forensic anthropologist for Pima County. Anderson eventually started working for the county and quickly developed a passion for helping solve medico-legal investigations into the manner and cause of death. “It was very interesting,” Anderson said. “Tragic at times, tough to do at times with all the things you can imagine about a dead body, but … [it]  allowed me to use some skills I’d developed in anatomy and anthropology to [do] some good.”

Although forensic anthropology can be emotionally challenging, it’s also very rewarding. “People are identified. Sometimes crimes were solved because the postmortem examination was very good and explained how someone was hurt, injured or killed,” he said. “You get feedback on pronouncements you would make, assessments you would make, which you don’t usually get in academic anthropology.”

Solving a case fulfills his puzzle-loving self, but helping residents of Pima County is the ultimate goal. Anderson said he feels a sense of accomplishment when “families get accurate information and we identify someone that was just bones and had been missing for months or years.” Even so, he added, “it’s hard to be satisfied because you know it’s a tough day for the family.”

These clashing emotions can be a struggle for people working on medico-legal death investigations. Anderson said he still vividly remembers the first dead body he ever saw in the 1980s. He is reminded of it frequently when he sees similar cases.

He sometimes thinks about the effects this line of work can have on your mental health. “Sometimes I wonder if seeing so many dead people … smelling all these terrible smells and seeing these horrendous sights … if that doesn’t take a toll on your psyche over a long period of time.”

During his 10-plus years with Pima County, Anderson said cases involving children have been the most difficult. What makes the job easier is thinking about how his role as a forensic anthropologist can ultimately help bring to justice the person who killed a child. “When you can offer some information that suggests how the child died or how the child was hurt, that helps figure out who hurt the kid,” he said. “Probably that same person killed the kid.”

All in all, Anderson said he enjoys his job and finds time to occasionally teach anthropology classes at UA. Although he doesn’t want to teach full-time, he likes interacting with students and staying current on literature in his field.

It’s his job, however, that takes up most of his time. In forensic anthropology, there’s always a puzzle that needs solving.

Published Date: 

11/07/2012 - 18:39

Photo Credits: 

Photo by <a href="" target="blank">Matt Nager</a>
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