Ada Lovelace Day: Interview (2) with Dr. Elizabeth A. Murray

By Domenica Di Piazza, Editorial Director, Twenty-First Century Books (TFCB)

beth's photo Dr. Elizabeth A. Murray (right), is a forensic anthropologist and professor of biology at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is one of only about 65 anthropologists certified as an expert by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology. With TFCB, Dr. Murray has just published a wonderfully captivating and informative nonfiction book for YA readers about the science of death, entitled Death: Corpses, Cadavers, and Other Grave Matters.

As part of Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging about women in science, I interviewed Dr. Murray about her experience writing the book. For another earlier interview I did with Dr. Murray, in which she talks about her work and her background, click here.

death coverPlease set the stage for us about the subject of your book. I am often known to say, “Death is my life.” I suppose I was Goth before it was cool, with my first publication about death having been in high school (in the mid-1970s), when one of my poems was printed in a school creative writing booklet. I have always had a morbid fascination with death (pun intended). I am a hands-on learner, and am still working toward a better understanding of the mysteries of life, and the tragedies of death, through my roles as a gross anatomy professor and forensic anthropologist.

It has been my experience that most people are not only afraid of experiencing death but are even afraid to talk about it. Without exception, the only single activity that all humans — all living organisms — share is death. The cycles of life and death reprocess nutrients in the environment and comprise nature’s food webs, which allow growth and development, uniting life itself. From a cultural standpoint, life and death ultimately bond families together.

I hope that by better understanding death, the readers of my book come to fear it less — or at least be more comfortable discussing it – and that we all come to have a better understanding of the natural and unavoidable end of life.

How is your book organized? The book is about the science of death. It starts out with the basic science necessary to understand life and health as a prelude to discussing what happens when things go wrong. Subsequent chapters cover disorder and disease and how they lead to death, including some of the physical signs that death is imminent. A separate chapter focuses on some of the medico-legal facets of death, such as who is autopsied and who is not, and describes some of the experts, including forensic scientists, who work with the dead.

The book includes a chapter about the science of decomposition, including such phenomena as rigor mortis, odor, the changes caused by bacteria, and a discussion of the animals (including insects) that are known to feed off of corpses. In that chapter, I also discuss some of the environmental factors that affect decay and how it progresses, and how the recycling of dead matter is essential in ecosystems. This leads into the final chapter, entitled “Death Benefits: Life After Death,” which explains how the dead help the living.

There is information about tissue and organ donation, how society is aided by forensic investigations involving the dead, and how medical education and research are promoted through body donation programs. Throughout the book, there are a variety of sidebar discussions and current events mentioned, including the “death with dignity” debate, common causes of death in the United States, interviews with individuals whose lives intersect with death, and how grave robbers once provided bodies for dissection.

How did you research and write the book? Having been in the field of forensic science for over 25 years, and having been a professor of gross anatomy for about 15 years, I have a lot of experience dealing with the dead. In order to understand death, however, one must also be knowledgeable about the shared characteristics of living organisms, and to be able to relate the workings of the human body to a non-scientific audience. I have over 20 years of experience as a college professor, and regularly teach general biology and anatomy and physiology. All of this background helped prepare me to write my book.

Clearly, though, you cannot really speak about death in a meaningful way, in my opinion, without interacting with it on multiple and personal levels. Being present at the death of individuals who were close to me, and watching my father pass through the various stages of cancer leading to his death, were as pivotal in my understanding of mortality as were my teaching experiences.

In addition, within the book are about a dozen sidebars written by individuals whose lives are touched by death. I wanted to show young persons the diverse ways and many people who interact with death on a daily basis. Some of these interviews were with forensic professionals, anatomy professors, funeral directors, a paramedic, a hospice nurse, the manager of a body donation program, a man who has survived two heart attacks and a stroke, and even two members of my family: my nephew, Jamie, suffers from cystic fibrosis, which is a terminal condition, and my mother is a future body donor.

What were the challenges and fun aspects for you of working on this book? I definitely enjoyed researching the few books that exist on this topic that would contain information appropriate for young people. Additionally, it was great to take the photos of the interviewees. It was important to me that readers see the faces of the people who wrote the interviews, and since all of my experts were local, this was something I could easily do, since I take all my own professional photographs in my forensic work.

The most challenging aspect of this project, without a doubt, would be when I had to edit down approximately one-fourth of the manuscript for length. That was entirely my fault, or should I simply blame my Irish storytelling father? Either way, it all worked out and I am very proud of this project. There is not a single other book like this on the market geared toward grades 7-12. I should also add that many of my adult friends have enjoyed it, too. I am excited about the potential to instill a greater interest in science in middle and high school students through my writing.