The Chemistry of Death

In the UK, there are several different examination boards. While the core syllabus for A level biology is much the same, each board is slightly different in the style and content of what could be described as the ‘bells and whistles’. Edexcel is the only board to include a forensics module in the Salters Nuffield (SNAB) specification.

This forensics module is much liked by students, and I find it a fun module to teach. Within the module, we look at disease and immunity (as do the other boards) but also the time and cause of death, and of course, how to identify a dead body.

I recently read a book, The Chemistry of Death, by Simon Beckett. This isn’t my usual non-fiction, recommended reading for students but a rather gristly novel. Our Hero is a GP, previously a forensic pathologist asked to help the police to solve a string of murders. It uses entomology, the study of insects, to establish the time of death and Our Hero is able to prove that girls are kept alive for some time after their disappearances before being found dead surrounded by strange circumstances.

As all Edexcel SNAB biologists know, different insects prefer different conditions of decay in order to lay eggs. By studying the species and developmental stages of insect larvae, scientists can extrapolate backwards to a time of death, days after the event. More familiar techniques, such as body temperature and rigor mortis are only reliable for a matter of hours rather than days. This book is an excellent example of forensic entomology in action, even if only in the fictional sense.

A level students are expected to be widely read in the subject matter. I feel that this book fits the bill perfectly, especially if your examination board is Edexcel SNAB. If you’ve a strong stomach, grab a cup of tea and packet of biscuits and spend the weekend reading a decent novel. Alternatively, tick off a few hours spent on background research for your biology A level.