Tom Bohan: A Blow with a Word Strikes Deeper

Tom Bohan at the door of his office in the island cottage “Windy”

An interior wall of the Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building bears the well-worn adage “The pen is mightier than the sword,” a saying attributed to the Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton (who, by the way, also penned the equally familiar line “It was a dark and stormy night…”). Two hundred years earlier Robert Burton wrote  “A blow with a word strikes deeper than a blow with a sword” and, if rumor holds any water, Napoleon Bonaparte quipped (presumably in French)  “Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.” If Bulwer-Lytton, Burton, and Bonaparte could have met Tom Bohan of MTC Forensics, they might have applied their respective phrases to him. This Maine islander is on a crusade and his pen is cutting a swath through crime labs nationwide. It’s no wonder his recent book is called Crashes and Collapses.

Crashes and Collapses, Tom Bohan

When Tom was growing up in the Midwest, he dreamed of moving to New York and working as a detective-scientist. Armed with a desire to pursue science, Tom studied Physics as an undergrad at the University of Chicago; he then pursued a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign (his thesis was on, uh, something to do with the properties of magnetic resonance when the temperature reaches absolute zero). Later, on a Fulbright grant, Tom taught as a visiting professor in Peru before returning to the U.S. to teach in the Physics and Astronomy Department at Bowdoin College. Brunswick may have offered science and a near-absolute-zero experience, but not nearly enough of that detective slice of his dream.

Ironically, the 1972 oil spill in Casco Bay propelled his career as a forensic scientist and national author. The Portland Press Herald called it one of the top stories of the century: the Norwegian oil tanker “Tamano” ruptured its hull, gushing more than 100,000 gallons of oil into Casco Bay. Tom found himself called in as the expert to help solve where and when the tanker had suffered its blow. To do this, he used Archimedes Law of buoyancy. Let’s call it the Mystery of Soldier’s Ledge since, I’ll give it away, the tanker didn’t really damage itself on a navigational buoy as the Captain had thought, but had ripped itself open on Soldier’s Ledge in Hussey’s Sound. Tom’s scientific writing suddenly found a new audience: the courts. At last, his science had converged with detective work.

When I visited Tom in his Peaks Island office, I asked him if he liked writing. He glanced out the window at the grove of trees that often shelters deer. “I like it when it’s done,” he laughed.

As the current President of the American Academy of Forensic Science and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Forensic Science, Tom has to excel at “getting it done.” He travels internationally, lecturing and publishing on the use (and often misuse) of science by the legal system.

This is where Tom’s pen becomes the sword.

Tom Bohan of MTC Forensics

“My writing often incites anger in my readers,” Tom said. “The U.S. legal system commonly uses forensic evidence with little scientific evaluation. That can and does lead to false convictions of the innocent.” A report by the National Academy of Sciences called attention to this problem earlier this year; headlines cried “Forensic Techniques Lack Scientific Validity.” Welcome to the messy world of fingerprint analysis and shaken baby syndrome clues; it makes CSI look like a kids’ birthday party. Tom’s writing sits solidly on his foundation as a practicing scientist; from there he advocates internationally for a reassessment of scientific practices that generate evidence.

For the record, Tom doesn’t watch CSI, but I think their script writers should be reading him.

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