Few if any of those waiting for their prescriptions in a south Leamington chemist will know that the father of modern forensic medicine was born in the flat upstairs.
On 16 May 1877 the manufacturing chemist James Spilsbury’s first child was born in the flat above his shop at 35 Bath Street, Leamington Spa (4th shop on the left of the image above). Christened Bernard Henry, James’ new-born son later became Britain’s most eminent forensic pathologist and in 1923, the recipient of a knighthood. He was educated at Leamington College before gaining a place at at Magdalen College, Oxford. He went up to Oxford in 1896 with the ambition of becoming a doctor in general practice. His grandmother tried hard to convince the young Bernard that his chosen career would not be hugely profitable and that his future would be more assured if he were articled to Brookfields, the large drapers in Stafford.
After a somewhat undistinguished career at Oxford, Bernard came down at the end of Trinity Term in 1899 and began his professional life as a Pathologist at St Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London.
Bernard Spilsbury (left, in his laboratory in 1922) became the foremost medical detective of his day and was called to give evidence for the Crown in over two hundred murder trials in England over a period of thirty years. He was a key witness in the trial of the infamous Dr Crippen in 1910 and is known to have carried out over 25,000 autopsies during his career. His pronouncements were treated almost with reverence and an aura of infallibility grew up around him. Sir Sydney Smith, a fellow forensic pathologist, wryly observed that ‘[Spilsbury’s] belief in himself was so strong that he would not conceive the possibility of error in his observations or interpretation’.
Bernard Spilsbury’s star had begun to shine less brightly by the time of the Second World War, and a series of family bereavements allied to his own declining health led to him taking his life just before Christmas 1947 by inhaling coal gas from a bunsen burner in his laboratory. His remains were cremated at Golders Green Crematorium.
A Blue Plaque was unveiled on 4th October 2016 in memory of Sir Bernard at the chemist’s shop at 35 Bath Street where he was born. Thanks to the current owners for a donation.
Alan Griffin. April 2013