By Erika Mills and Elizabeth A. Mullen
Poring over bones left in mass graves and clandestine burial sites, seeking answers that might shed light on some of the darkest episodes in recent history, Clyde Snow made it his life’s work to unearth the truth. The celebrated forensic anthropologist exhumed and examined the skeletal remains of those who perished in wars and massacres around the globe, using the distinct characteristics of the excavated bones to identify victims and serve as evidence against war criminals. Dr. Snow passed away last Friday, May 16th at the age of 86. He will be remembered as perhaps the first great exponent of human rights forensics.
In 1984, after the collapse of the Argentinean military regime and the end of its “Dirty War,” the new civilian government recruited Dr. Snow to investigate and document the junta’s crimes. Dr. Snow and a team of Argentinean university students excavated hundreds of clandestine graves where “Los Desaparecidos,” or “The Disappeared”—people who’d been secretly abducted, tortured, and killed by the military, and whose whereabouts were unknown—had been buried. They identified remains and gathered evidence that helped convict six of nine former junta leaders in a landmark trial. Since then, teams of forensic anthropologists have done similar work in Rwanda, Chile, Croatia, and other areas affected by conflict.
Dr Snow’s groundbreaking work in Argentina is highlighted in the NLM’s exhibition about the history of forensic medicine, Visible Proofs: Forensic Views of the Body. Many of us were privileged to meet, work with, and learn from Dr. Snow as we endeavored to share his story with our visitors in the exhibition. On opening day, February 16, 2006, Dr. Snow spoke to a gathering of students about his experiences and historical achievements with great earnestness and encouragement and the message that anyone can make a difference in the world.
Curator Michael Sappol remembers: “It was my great privilege to meet Clyde Snow. Dime novels and Hollywood films have given us the myth of the cowboy hero—a man of the West who possesses great courage, integrity, wisdom, and ability—who uses his powers to protect the weak and bring law and justice to a lawless land. Clyde Snow was such a man, a true cowboy forensic anthropologist. His list of accomplishments is long, but perhaps his greatest accomplishment is this: He taught and inspired several generations of idealistic young men and women to use the methods of forensic anthropology to unearth and analyze the remains of men, women, and children, and so document the murders and atrocities and genocides committed by military juntas, dictators and war criminals. It was, and continues to be, a dangerous and worthy mission.”
Dr. Snow once said, “I’m not an advocate, I’m an expert. Unless you maintain…objectivity, you lose credibility.…and the best way is to let the bones speak for themselves.” He undoubtedly was an expert; he was also an inspiration. And so, a moment of heartfelt silence then, to remember Clyde Snow.
In addition to his work uncovering human rights abuses, Dr. Snow investigated the deaths of some historical figures, including President John F. Kennedy, Josef Mengele, the Nazi war criminal, and Tutankhamen. This New York Times profile has more on Dr. Snow’s storied career.