Obituary: Professor Alan Usher

Michael Green@heydonprowse
Wednesday 19 August 1998 23:02

ALAN USHER was one of Britain's leading forensic pathologists. He was the archetypal "Home Office pathologist" figure who maintained the traditions of Sir Bernard Spilsbury, John Glaister and Keith Simpson, in dress, mannerisms and, above all, cool professionalism.

When he moved to Sheffield University in 1961 the Public Mortuary was housed in decrepit premises built at the turn of the century. It was typical of so many others and would have served as the setting for a poor-quality horror film. Rudimentary toxicology and serology of the day was carried out in the basement of an old chapel some distance away. As Usher himself once remarked: "Next to public conveniences, to which many of them bear a curious and revealing architectural resemblance, public mortuaries are usually the smallest buildings erected and maintained by the local authority."

Over the next 15 years, Usher laboured incessantly to persuade the city council and the university to co- operate in the planning and building of modern premises, which would not only have all the necessary scientific facilities and the coroner's court, but would present a "friendly face" to recently bereaved members of the public. In his endeavours he had the support and encouragement of the Sheffield Coroner, Dr Herbert Pilling. The Sheffield Medico-Legal Centre opened in 1977 to international acclaim from architects and those working in the medical and legal professions. Its basic concepts and design were entirely Alan Usher's and it is a fitting memorial to his life and career.

Usher was born in the Chester-le-Street workhouse, where his father was the master. After attending the local grammar school, he studied medicine at King's College Medical School in Newcastle. There followed various hospital appointments in Durham and a spell as a ship's surgeon, which took him to the Far East and a thousand miles down the Amazon.

As a lecturer in Sheffield University, he worked under Gilbert Forbes in the Department of Forensic Medicine. Following Forbes's move to Glasgow in 1964, Usher took over as head of department and was also appointed Consultant Pathologist to the Home Office and Senior Police Surgeon to the South Yorkshire Police Force. He took up a new Chair in Forensic Pathology at Sheffield in 1979.

Like most of his colleagues in forensic medicine, Usher was responsible for a large territory - in his case South Yorkshire as far as the Humber, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, and the northern halves of Lincolnshire and Staffordshire. During his career he performed up to 1,000 coroner's post- mortems annually and took part in almost 800 murder investigations, including one of the Yorkshire Ripper cases, the Helen Smith case in Jedda, the Cannock Chase murders, the Prestbury Bank murders, and the Perera dismemberment case. He also played a major part in the investigations which followed the Flixborough (1974) and Hillsborough (1989) disasters.

After his appearance in the Dr Leonard Arthur trial in 1981, which involved euthanasia of a child with Down's Syndrome, the law on evidence was changed, so that technical medical evidence proffered by the defence, like alibis, must be revealed for inspection prior to the case coming to court.

A former President of the British Association in Forensic Medicine, in 1985 he was appointed by the Home Office to serve on the Wasserman Committee reporting on police forensic pathology services. This gave him an opportunity to bring his experience to bear on the reorganisation of pathology services for the police in England and Wales, as well as on providing a career structure for aspiring forensic pathologists.

No matter how difficult the case or adverse the weather at a murder scene, Usher would remain calm and in control. He was immensely popular with police officers and would go to great lengths to explain and demonstrate his findings, even to the newest recruit. Those who were distressed would receive his sympathy and support.

In court, his reports were a model of clarity. His demeanour in the witness box was courteous; he never rose to the bait when counsel tried to shake his testimony. At the same time he would readily concede fair points. Usher's aim was to serve truth rather than to maintain an adversarial stance. Humour was never far from the surface, however, and he would often have the court, including the accused, in stitches.

Usher was a man of considerable wit and vitality and, alongside his distinguished career in forensic pathology, he enjoyed a national reputation as a brilliant after-dinner speaker. He was fond of cricket and captained the Sheffield University staff team, which he also served as President. In his younger days he also played rugby and helped to form the Medics Rugby Club in Sheffield.

Michael Green

Alan Usher, forensic pathologist: born Chester-le-Street, Co Durham 21 June 1930; Lecturer in Forensic Pathology, Sheffield University 1961- 64, Senior Lecturer 1964-78, Professor of Forensic Pathology 1978-90 (Emeritus); Consultant Home Office Pathologist 1964-90; Senior Police Surgeon to South Yorkshire Police Force 1964-90; OBE 1980; married 1958 Doreen Stephenson (three sons, one daughter); died Sheffield 31 July 1998.

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