President’s Message — November 2017

Source:  Betty Layne DesPortes, JD, MS, 2017-18 President

At our annual meeting in Seattle, we will be celebrating the 70th Anniversary of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. We have come a long way since that first American Medicolegal Congress in 1948, in St. Louis where the assembly approved a motion to pursue the formation of a permanent organization involving all of the forensic sciences as envisioned by Rutherford B. H. Gradwohl, MD:

“To the end of coordination of all agencies and efforts, I wish to recommend to this group the formation of a central organization of a permanent nature, to meet annually. Its aims and purposes will be to become a clearinghouse for new ideas and developments, to support reforms in legislatures and courts, to study and recommend new methods of jurisprudence.”

– R.B.H. Gradwohl, Opening Remarks

This first meeting had 150 attendees, 29 presentations, and lasted three days. To continue the collaboration across the disciplines, the group strongly recommended the formation of a permanent multidisciplinary organization. By the end of 1948, the group named the new organization the “American Academy of Forensic Sciences,” emphasizing the diversity of the organization to cover all of the Americas, and not just the United States. The group also composed a list of suggested purposes, including encouraging research and promoting the dissemination of knowledge. Seventy years later, I selected three areas of presidential focus – Diversity, Research, and Communication – that are reflected in these early actions of the Academy’s founders.

2016-17 AAFS President John Gerns.

2009-10 AAFS President Tom Bohan.

Consistent with Past President John Gerns’ 2017 meeting theme, “Our Future Reflects Our Past:  The Evolution of Forensic Science,” we also looked to the early years of the Academy in planning and highlighting other activities. The idea for the first American Mediolegal Congress originated from discussions Dr. Gradwohl had with his good friend, Dr. Israel Castellanos, in Havana, Cuba, in the spring of 1947. The two men agreed that issues in forensic science should be addressed as a community, not as discipline-specific issues, and discussed a multidisciplinary conference involving all of the disciplines and relevant legal professionals. Although Dr. Castellanos was not able to attend the 1948 meeting, we hope our upcoming International Educational Outreach Program (IEOP) to Havana, Cuba, in May 2018, will allow us to recognize the contributions of our Cuban colleagues to the formation of the Academy. Attempts to arrange an IEOP to Cuba to meet with our forensic science colleagues began during the presidency of Thomas Bohan, and we are pleased that during the 70th Anniversary of the Academy, we will be able to reflect on the genesis of the Academy’s formation in the country where Dr. Gradwohl and Dr. Castellanos first had their discussions.

The IEOP to Cuba is scheduled for May 23-27, 2018. We will be traveling with Cuba Educational Travel (CET), an authorized travel operator, and the program is fully compliant with the updated United States travel regulations. In addition to enjoying local cuisine and sites, we will be touring the University of Havana, the Latin American Medical School, and forensic laboratories. We also have scheduled presentations and meetings with our Cuban forensic science colleagues. The registration deadline is in February 2018, but the trip is very popular and we are quickly approaching our capped registration limit, so register as soon as possible if you would like to join the Cuba IEOP.

More information on the IEOP and the CET travel arrangements is available at:

Although we do not have a roster of attendees at the 1948 meetings, we have a roster of attendees of the Second Meeting of the Academy in 1950 in Chicago. Among the attendees was Frances Glessner Lee, the first female police captain in the United States and a pioneer in the field of death investigation. Using traditionally female crafting skills, she created crime scene dioramas as instructional tools to advance the then male-dominated field of death investigation. The “virtual reality” equivalents of the 1940s, the diorama composites, allowed Lee to teach investigators how to canvass a crime scene and use their powers of observation and deduction to uncover clues and reach conclusions. On October 19, 2017, the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum opened the exhibit Murder is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. The exhibit contains 19 meticulously detailed dollhouse-sized dioramas of unexplained death scenes used to train investigators since the 1940s. To honor her participating in the early Academy meetings, the Academy supported the exhibit as a showcase of artistic works and as forensic tools. The exhibit, on display through January 28, 2018, at the Renwick Gallery (Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC) has proven to be very popular and has enabled the Academy to reach an entirely new audience to raise awareness of forensic science works.

As we reflect on the early roots of the Academy, we also honor our Founding Members. Unfortunately, the last surviving Founding Member recently passed away. Dr. Kurt M. Dubowski passed away in October, but his contributions to the Academy will continue to be remembered and celebrated. Dr. Dubowski was a Founding Member of the AAFS Toxicology Section in 1950; he served as Toxicology Section Secretary in 1958-60, as Section Chair in 1960-61, and as Program Chair in 1967-68. He was a Member of the Executive Committee from 1966 until 1969, and served on the Journal of Forensic Sciences Editorial Board from 1956 until his passing. Dr. Dubowski served as AAFS President in 1978-79. His enduring accomplishments included:  the permanent representation of all Sections on the AAFS Board of Directors; the introduction of academic qualifications for membership in the Toxicology Section; the introduction of the first proficiency test program in forensic toxicology; the establishment of the first Registry of Human Toxicology for postmortem toxicology findings; the establishment of the AAFS Section Awards; and he chaired the Committee on Certification, which proposed and established certification programs in forensic sciences in 1974-75. We will be honoring Dr. Dubowski and all of the Founding Members at the 70th Anniversary meeting.

For those interested in reading more about the early history of the Academy, I recommend the work of Kenneth S. Field in “History of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences:  50 Years of Progress 1948-1998,” which we have recently posted on the AAFS website. You may access it HERE.