By recording each step we take, nature is the last witness of human activity. For forensic and botanical ecologist Professor Patricia Wiltshire, who analyzes microscopic traces of pollen and spores, nature has been the key to solving some of the UK’s biggest crimes.
“When we try to select something on its own, we find it attached to everything else in the universe,” said nature writer John Muir. His words also apply to the work of forensic ecologist Prof Patricia Wiltshire. But while Muir mused on the interconnectedness of nature, Wiltshire’s work is starkly, literally, realistic.
For more than 40 years, he has been helping UK police solve high-profile criminal cases, from murder to kidnapping, by examining tiny particles of pollen, plants and fungi under his microscope. Wiltshire knows better than most how nature marks every step we take, how the landscapes we pass through leave footprints, and how these clues can unravel criminal mysteries.
“Today it is fashionable to say that we live in a surveillance society, but its movements can be tracked by more than cameras,” Wiltshire writes in his memoir, Traces. A short walk through the forest, he explains, is recorded on a person’s clothing and body: a coat rubbed against the trees collects the tiny spores and pollen lodged in the bark; the boots pick up dirt and crumb stains that contain tiny elements from recent days to past seasons; and the hair that passes over the twigs and leaves picks up any traces that have fallen on their surfaces.
Wiltshire, now 78, lives in Surrey with her husband David and their cat Maudie, and counts sewing, painting and gardening among her hobbies. Coupled with his soft Welsh accent and 5-foot tall stature, these details don’t scream a tough, pioneering crime fighter.
But she is. Wiltshire has handled more than 250 cases, including some of the most notorious in the last 25 years. She was involved in the sex worker murder investigations of Milly Dowler, Sarah Payne and Ipswich, and helped secure Ian Huntley’s conviction for the Soham murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, giving testimony at his trial.
It wasn’t until he was 50 that he even started this type of work. As a child, Wiltshire dreamed of being a ballet dancer or concert pianist, before enlisting at King’s College London at the age of 28 to study botany and geology. He lectured there and at University College London, before receiving a phone call that would send his career in a new direction. A Hertfordshire police detective asked if he could help in a murder case. A body had been found in a ditch in rural Hertfordshire; a murder related to the Chinese triad. Proving the participation of the suspects revolved around being able to prove that their car had been in that field. Could Wiltshire do this?
By recording each step we take, nature is the last witness of human activity. Image: Markus Spiske
He set about scrubbing the car meticulously, sifting, and decanting the silty washes so they could be spun to concentrated granules. Acids were then used to remove the background elements of the soil (quartz, clay, etc.) from the granules, leaving only the ‘palynomorphs’, tiny fossils of pollen or spores. They were then stained and gelatin embedded on glass, before Wiltshire began to study the samples closely.
“I was looking at the vegetation that had been growing,” reflects Wiltshire. “The amount of tree and shrub pollen types that I found probably meant it was an ancient hedge.” An image formed in his mind of a species-rich hedge bordering a farm field. He picked up the police phone.
When officers took Wiltshire to visit the site, they offered to show him where the body had been discovered. Instead, he asked if he could try to tell her. Wandering around the huge field, “the hedge was bad, bad, bad, and suddenly it was good.”
On the slides he had seen field maples, hawthorn trees, flowering ivy, grass, springs, goose foot, and nettle. The criminals had stepped on them all and taken them back to their car. Wiltshire knew this was the place and the astonished officers confirmed it. “The hedge and the bench had witnessed their body being set on fire and escaped. I was informing them now, ”he writes.
Today it is fashionable to say that we live in a surveillance society, but your movements can be tracked by more than cameras.
His evidence became an important element in the trial and subsequent convictions. As he took on more cases, the dismissive attitudes he saw in some officers at first were replaced by admiration for what he was able to discover. “Gradually,” he tells Positive News, “he became more confident.”
Wiltshire has now worked with all of the UK police forces. She has calculated ‘time since death’, helped locate human remains, and even earned the nickname ‘the snot lady’, after collecting pollen grains from the nostrils of corpses. When faced with the force of Wiltshire evidence, many criminals have confessed, saving themselves the cost of lengthy trials.
Often it has been Wiltshire’s knowledge of botany, accumulated over years of painstaking fieldwork, that has helped make sense of the clues. “I like to solve puzzles and there is always a puzzle,” he explains. “It’s pretty nice when it’s all been in court and over, but I don’t really feel like a great noble idea to lock up criminals. A puzzle pops up, I solve it, and then move on to the next one. “
Wiltshire’s knowledge of botany has helped solve some of the UK’s biggest crimes. Image: Patricia Wiltshire
Despite her decidedly scientific approach, Wiltshire cites a few times when the crimes she helped solve took her especially emotionally. One was a 22-year-old sex worker and mother of three, who had been murdered.
“She was a prostitute to feed her drug addiction and support her pimp,” Wiltshire recalls. “She was expelled by her parents, she had the most gruesome and abusive life, and yet she fought and fought to stay with her children. My heart broke for her. How not to admire someone like that? “
Wiltshire does not often hear from the families of his loved ones whose mysteries he has helped solve. But he mentions a letter he received from Joanne Nelson’s mother, who was murdered by her boyfriend in 2005. Although Paul Dyson admitted that he had killed Nelson, he did not remember where he had put her body. With access to his car, running shoes and a garden fork, Wiltshire was able to describe the place, even predicting that Nelson would not be buried, but instead laid in a hollow covered in birch twigs. The police found her in a situation as Wiltshire had described.
It’s nice when it’s all been in court and over, but I don’t really feel like a great noble idea to lock up criminals.
“His mother wrote to me, usually mothers write,” says Wiltshire. “She thanked me for getting her daughter back. She couldn’t close without being able to bury the body. It was very moving. “
Despite the often creepy nature of the job, Wiltshire, who still works today, is passionate about learning and the natural world. “Nature is incredibly complicated. Each part of the investigation shows more of its complexity, and I love that. “
She is cautiously excited about technological developments, such as the use of raman spectroscopy (a chemical analysis technique that provides detailed information on the composition of materials). “I am delighted when things unfold.”
He’s even managed to stay optimistic about human nature, simply put. His Twitter bio reads: “Forensic Ecologist. He loves babies and other animals, plants, fungi, bacteria, and some people. “
The devil is in the details: Wiltshire often scrutinizes samples of evidence. Image: Thomas Malik
Despite the clear value of pioneering science, there are few people who work in a similar way, he notes. “It requires real perseverance, a lot of field work; you have to be robust enough to deal with difficult police officers, find decaying corpses, etc., be torn to pieces in court; you have to be strong in many ways. “
And while he can’t help but invite comparisons to eccentric TV detectives (a passage from an earlier book describes his guilt in an Albanian gang murder before he went home to make beans on toast and hug his cat), it is without certainly a force to be reckoned with.
“I have a unique mind,” she says. “I work very hard and trust my data. Once I am confident in my work, I am not afraid of anyone. “
Traces is published by Bonnier Books.