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Uncovering the story of Detective X

Wilmer Souder and the early history of forensic science at NBS

On June 10, 2016, NIST Fellow John Butler teamed with ISO’s Museum Curator Kristen Frederick-Frost to present a NIST Colloquium about Wilmer Souder and the early work in Forensic Science conducted at NIST. After much digging, they have uncovered an incredible, and largely untold (until now), story of this physicist who was known mainly as the “Father of Dental Materials Research” for his studies of alloys used in dental amalgam.

At the colloquium, we were treated to the shadow story of this man whose skill with precise measurement techniques drew the attention of law enforcement. Souder helped solve the Lindbergh kidnapping case (the “Crime of the Century”… at least until the O.J. Simpson trial) through handwriting analysis of the ransom notes.

His pioneering ballistics analyses (matching a bullet to a particular gun) were integral to putting many criminals in prison. So many that, as Kristen said in answer to an audience member’s question, he feared for the safety of his family. This fear probably played a role in the low profile he kept for his prolific case work as an expert witness in criminal trials.

During the colloquium, John Butler mentioned a book he found in the Library’s regular collection while researching Souder. The book, Questioned Document Problems: The Discovery and Proof of the Facts (1944) by Albert S. and Albert D. Osborn, describes issues for document examiners to consider with documents entered as court evidence. Chapters include “Anonymous Letters,” “Volunteered and Request Writing,” “Forgery on a Typewriter,” and much more.

Paging through it, John realized the book he was holding had been Souder’s personal copy and contains several penciled notes in the margins that may have been written by Souder himself! (Kristen reported that the Library’s historical book collection, kept under lock and key, contains additional books that belonged to Souder.) Asked why this book was special, John said, “It is just fun for me to think about the fact that [Souder] would have read this book and used it as part of his work. Some of his DNA would have been on the pages at some point in the past.”

Also, John described an exercise in the book about using the word “that” for comparison in handwriting analysis: “Melissa Taylor in the Special Programs Office used this exercise to assess people as part of an Expert Working Group on Human Factors in Handwriting Examination that I attended last June. In other words, the exercises in this book are still used today to assess people’s abilities to compare handwriting.” See John’s results in the photo to the right.

The Library’s collection includes many seminal (and still useful) books like this. A recent study indicates that in the last 10 years the Research Library had almost 56,000 check-outs of books published prior to 1970 (out of about a million check-outs overall). At the Info Desk, we often hear customers excited to find a particular book on the shelf. It’s not often we hear about it at a NIST Colloquium!

Stop by and check out some of the Library’s fantastic books (old and new) soon… you may find the hidden gem that makes all the difference in your research. And while you’re here, be sure to take in the new exhibit about Souder located just outside the museum entrance. Contact the library [at] (Information Desk) (x3052) with your stories of cool books you found in the Research Library’s stacks. We love to hear about them!

Released June 10, 2016, Updated October 19, 2016