Special branch: Clerkenwell plants expert who weeds out criminals
Forensic botanist has helped the police crack serious cases including kidnaps and murders
15 November, 2019 — By Emily Finch
Dr Mark Spencer, from Clerkenwell, was a curator at the Natural History Museum before he was asked to assist in police work
DEATH is not something to find disgusting or scary, says a forensic botanist hired by the police to crack cases by analysing plant samples.
Dr Mark Spencer said: “Death itself is not horrid. It’s not evil or bad, it’s part of the amazing natural world. It’s challenging, wonderful and intimate to be working with someone’s remains.”
Dr Spencer, from Clerkenwell, was working as a senior curator at the Natural History Museum when he was contacted by a crime scene investigator which changed the course of his life 10 years ago.
Instead of digging through thousands of plant samples in the museum archive, he found himself wading through mud to help date a Himalayan Balsam plant which was flattened by the decaying body of a man on the edge of the Pennines.
Since that phone call, he has worked as a freelance botanist for the police and has helped crack dozens of serious cases, including rapes, kidnaps and murders.
He is now releasing an autobiography about his experiences titled Murder Most Florid.
“I’ve always been interested in plants – they’re the most interesting things on the planet,” said Dr Spencer
“Yet people are so completely blind to plants and what they offer us culturally in society and to the individual.
“They do so much more for us and for me, they have the unusual angle for solving crime.”
Dr Spencer is able to say how long a body has been outside by examining the regrowth pattern of a plant stem that was protruding from underneath the torso.
By looking at leaf and fruit fragments attached to suspects or victims he is able to help pin down where the crime took place.
He also analyses the contents of the deceased’s stomach to narrow down their time of death by telling officers when they had their last meal.
But Dr Spencer does not believe his job is morbid.
“I do this not out of morbidity but because it’s wonderful to help the dead, their family and friends,” he said.
“I’m not a morbid person, I’m not interested in crime novels or crime TV programmes.”
He said with this job “you can either do it or you can’t” and added: “It’s down to personality. For some people, just saying ‘death’ makes them go green.
“You only find out if you’re suitable after your first body. I just threw myself into it, you can’t really train for it.”
For any aspiring forensic botanists Dr Spencer warned that the industry “was in a pretty dreadful state” and that the police only required such specialist expertise on 20 to 30 cases a year throughout the country.
“You can’t make a full-time living from it,” he said.
“It’s not for those aspiring to buy big houses in London. But it’s great. I love plants and it’s amazing to help people – both the living and the dead. It’s as simple as that.”
• Murder Most Florid, by Dr Mark A. Spencer (Quadrille, £16.99) is out this month.