Show me your office – Asser H. Thomsen
A carrion beetle in a jar, two pairs of tall rubber boots and a bullet hole-riddled poster are just a few of the knickknacks you’l find in the office of Asser H. Thomsen, forensic pathologist.
A sign with a pair of reading glasses on one side and a knife on the other hangs outside Asser H. Thomsen’s office at the Department of Forensic Medicine. If you can see the side with the reading glasses, he’s in his office doing research or writing autopsy reports. If it’s the knife, he’s in the basement performing an autopsy. Today it’s the reading glasses, and Thomsen is seated at his desk surrounded by his computer, dictaphone, notebooks – and a murder case in a black cardboard folder.
“I probably spend 70-80 percent of my time here at the office, among other things writing autopsy reports on my forensic observations. If it’s a murder case, like this one, it takes some time, because I have to put in a lot of details.”
This desk is also where Thomsen is working on his doctoral dissertation on murders in Denmark in the period 1992-2006.
“At the moment I’m a part-time PhD student, but I’ll start full time on October 1st, and I expect to hand in my dissertation in June 2019.”
Thomsen is reviewing every murder committed – at least, every murder that’s been discovered – in Denmark in the 25-year period.
“Among other things, I’m looking at how severe the victims’ injuries are, and how treatment of the victims has changed over time. I’m also looking at the victims’ age and sex and the motive for the murder.
Before the summer vacation, the Danish Broadcasting Company ran a series on murders in Denmark in the past 25 years. Were you involved in it?
“They contacted me, but I can’t give them my numbers before my research is published. It’s kind of a bummer that they’re doing the series right now, when I’ve been tinkering with my numbers for four years. But can’t go public with them yet. On the other hand, it’s a relevant topic they’re taking up, and I think they’re handling it in an appropriate way.”
You’re in the media relatively frequently – why do you choose to do that?
“We’re paid by the public to do our work, and so we also have an obligation to speak about it publicly. Death is often surrounded by mystery, and I’d like to contribute to creating greater insight into death. We forensic pathologists deal with death all the time, and I’m not afraid to say ‘dead’. I don’t need expressions like ‘passed away’.”
He stresses that he also says frequently turns down media appearances.
“Especially if there’s too much of a cop show vibe.”
When Thomsen isn’t working in his office or wielding a scalpel in the basement, he gets called out to death scenes where a corpse has been found. His job is to help determine whether the death could be the result of a crime, and he secures the scene and helps identify the dead. But as a forensic pathologist, he doesn’t only deal with the dead. He also does medical examinations of the victims of attempted murder, violence or rape, or suspected perpetrators of murder, attempted murder, violence or rape. He and his co-workers cover Jutland from Kolding up to Skagen.
When Thomsen is working away from the department, he brings a mobile office packed down in a dark green backpack.
“It’s new. Someone threw up on the old one,” he says, pulling it down from the shelf where he keeps it ready to go, packed with everything he might need in the field.
“I have my camera there so I can document all the injuries. My clipboard is also important, so I can draw sketches of where wounds from a knife went in, for example, or where I take samples with a cotton swab.”
He continues to rummage around in the backpack.
“I also have a dictaphone so that I can record my observations, a magnifying glass for studying burn injuries, a folding rule so I can use precise measurements to indicate where on the body a victim has been shot. I have a tourniquet to take blood samples with, a flashlight to shine in the eyes and mouth. And here are some toe tags just waiting to be filled out...”
Thomsen unzips the third compartment of the backpack, which contains the characteristic white coveralls you see in photos of crime scenes. There are also sheets to spread the clothing of a victim or a suspect out on. And a so called ‘death scene kit’ with gloves, surgical masks and cotton swabs.
“And a body bag – because you never know when you might need one,” Thomsen states matter-of-factly.
For a forensic pathologist, what’s a deadly sin to forget to bring along?
“The camera, absolutely. I’ve had to turn around and go back because I forgot it was still in the charger. And a surgical mask.”
A pair of sturdy tall rubber boots are part of the necessary equipment for some death scenes. In fact, he has two pairs underneath a table with a microscope, one of which is well-worn, and the other brand-new.
“They’re good to wear at the scene of a fire, for example – it’s a good way to shield yourself from the folks we deal with...”
I got a nail stuck in the sole of the old pair and got a reprimand from my co-workers because they weren’t safety boots. So now I have a new pair with a puncture-resistant sole and metal toe caps. I just haven’t used them yet. And I can’t bring myself to throw the old ones out. It’s a pair of good boots. But I probably won’t be wearing them at home in the garden, nonetheless.”
There’s a prominently placed drawing of a man with his arm around a woman who’s holding a gun to her temple.
“I think it’s a megacool drawing,” Thomsen says.
But his enthusiasm isn’t purely aesthetic. It’s also about the bullet holes riddling the poster.
“I did a shooting course where we had to shoot at the poster. My first shot hit his trigger finger straight on,” Thomsen reveals triumphantly – who nonetheless subjected the poster to an extra shower of bullets – with a revolver (Magnus 0.44 mm) and a semiauto (AK47, better known as the Kalashnikov).
Why does a forensic pathologist need to learn how to shoot?
It’s to learn about weapons – we do see a lot of bullet wounds. And if you’ve had a weapon in your hands, it’s easier to understand wounds of that type and the traces that may be on the perpetrator. For example, some weapons leave traces of gunpowder on the person who fires them, others don’t.”
So it’s not because you may have to defend yourself when you’re called out to a crime scene?
“No. I haven’t needed to do that.”
There’s a black beetle preserved in alcohol in a small jar on the bookshelf.
“That’s a carrion beetle that was on a dead man. One of my co-workers gave it to me as a gift.”
The beetle’s function is purely decorative. But Thomsen does have a thing about insects. Especially flies.
“I think they’re super disgusting, but it’s nice to know something about them. Then it’s like they’re not quite as disgusting.”
Flies are among the first creatures to show up after someone dies. And Thomsen encounters them at all stages of their lives: as eggs, larvae and buzzing around. Maggots are another forensic summer speciality, as he characterizes them. For example, when he he gets called out because someone starts to wonder why their neighbor hasn’t come back from vacation after weeks and weeks.
“The worst is stepping on the maggots. It like vibrates in the soles of your shoes in a really gross way.”
What would you save if your office was burning?
“Myself. And then my notebooks, probably. This is where I keep track of all the cases and autopsies I’ve had. Really briefly with a date and a little note. For example: Found with head in cabinet. Or: Unidentified on couch.”
The reaction is never indifference when Thomsen tells people what he does, he says.
“People react with either horror or enthusiasm. Either they think it must be an awful job with all the horrible cases we deal with. And to that I usually just say: Well then I guess it’s good you’re not the one who has that job. And then there are people who think it’s exciting, and who are curious.”
Thomsen himself – not surprisingly – is pretty enthusiastic about his field.
“I like that there’s something urgent about it, when we have to get to the scene in a hurry. And at the same time, that there’s an opportunity to explore a case in depth and get engrossed in the details. I like that combination.”
But don’t everyday problems sometimes seem utterly irrelevant when considered in the light of the grim cases you sometimes have on your desk – children who are murdered and so on?
“You’re thinking about , like a parent-teacher conference where you’re told that your kid threw an eraser during class?”
Yes, for example...
“On the contrary, it gives me a perspective on the situation, where I just think: Oh – is that all? And it’s kind of the same with the cases I work on. Some are naturally more serious than others. But I need to take both kinds equally seriously.”