Starr investigates origins of forensic science in new book
This fall will see the publication of Professor Douglas Starr’s new book, The Killer of Little Shepherds (Knopf). The book, a nonfiction historical narrative, tells the story of the doctors who pioneered forensic science interwoven with that of a notorious serial killer who was apprehended and convicted with their techniques. The story takes place in France in the 1890s, a center of scientific achievement. In an early review, Publishers Weekly describes the book as an “eloquently” written story that “creates tension worthy of a thriller.” More than a crime story, the book documents the earliest scientific attempts to explore questions of good and evil in the human condition—questions that remain with us to this day.
Professor Starr is co-director of the Center for Science & Medical Journalism. His previous book, BLOOD: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce, tells the four-century saga of how human blood become a commodity—from the first experimental transfusions in the 17th century, through the collection and mobilization of blood in modern wars, to a tragic denouement during the AIDS epidemic. It was published in seven languages, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize (science and technology category) and was named to the “Best Books of the Year” lists of Publishers Weekly, Booklist and Library Journal. A PBS series based on the book, Red Gold, aired on more than 300 PBS stations in the U.S. and internationally.
We asked Professor Starr about his upcoming book and how it relates to what he teaches his students.
What gave you the idea for this book?
Ever since my last book, I’ve been interested in the themes of science and justice. I started on several projects, which didn’t pan out. Then one day while pouring through some medical journals I came upon a thesis about the case of the serial killer Joseph Vacher and about Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne, the scientist who solved the crime. I became fascinated with the pioneers of forensic science, or CSI as people call it today. As I dug into the subject, I realized I had characters, plot and theme—in short, the makings of a book.
What were some of the reporting challenges you faced?
One of the problems in writing historical nonfiction is that no one is alive to interview, so you must re-create the story from whatever historical records you can find. This re-creation must be scrupulously accurate. Every fact and quote in the book has to come from a verified source.
How did you address those challenges?
In order to re-create the crime spree, I traveled throughout France over a period of years, digging up legal documents, newspaper accounts and scientific material. I found several crates of documents in the provincial city where the trial took place, including court records, eyewitness testimony, a collection of letters from the killer and transcripts of the trial. I visited an insane asylum where the killer had been committed and saw the original psychiatric reports. In order to get a sense of time and place I traveled to the villages where the killings occurred and interviewed elderly farmers about local history and lore. The original autopsy reports provided details about the crimes.
On the scientist’s side of things, I spent many days in the archives that Dr. Lacassagne left behind at the University of Lyon. His great-great grandchildren also graciously shared many of his materials. To better understand forensic procedures, I sat in on a couple of criminal autopsies at the Institute of Legal Medicine in Lyon. That was quite an experience—one that I don’t think I want to repeat.
Were there any special difficulties with this project?
Obviously language was an issue. Fortunately, like many of our graduate students, I pursued divergent tracks in my college career—in my case, French and zoology—which proved a good match for this topic. Yet even though I’m comfortable in French, I needed help understanding the old handwritten documents. The language has changed over the years, and it’s difficult for a non-native speaker to interpret.
I also had to translate the science of the 1890s into something that modern readers would understand. So after translating the documents into English I had to consult with modern-day pathologists to understand the thinking of the scientists in my story.
The web proved especially helpful in this effort. A group of French historians digitized every issue of the scientific journal that Dr. Lacassagne published over a period of 28 years, and I was able to follow his writings throughout his career. I also downloaded many digitized editions of 19th century medical books to understand the era’s forensic science and neurology.
Is there anything that you learned in writing this book that you’ll be passing along to your students in the fall?
We teach our students to research to end point, which means that in order to effectively write about a topic, you need to genuinely understand it. It’s not enough to transfer quotes from a notebook. We encourage our students to see the big picture behind issues in science—not only what they mean to scientists, but to society. We also preach what the great nonfiction writer John McPhee calls the greatest attribute a writer can possess: doggedness.
Visit the Center for Science & Medical Journalism website for more information about the graduate program in Science Journalism.