A pathological interest in solving crime

WAY BACK WHEN

Way Back When

September 25, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Arecent obituary for Mardi E. Fiocco, a former Westminster registered nurse and amateur criminologist, mentioned her interest in the role forensic pathology plays in solving crimes.

And to gain further experience in this field, Fiocco spent a year studying with Dr. Russell S. Fisher, who was Maryland's medical examiner for 35 years, until his death in 1984.

Fisher, who liked to call himself a "medical detective," managed during his more than three decades of service to transform the state medical examiner's office into one of the premier units in the country, earning himself a national reputation as a forensic pathologist and teacher.

A highly skilled physician with a seemingly insatiable curiosity, Fisher was determined that families of the dead know how and why their loved ones had died.

It was said that through the years, the critical evidence he discovered and analyzed in autopsy rooms in the basement of a four-story brick and stone building at 111 Penn St., where he worked, sent many a killer to jail, the gallows or gas chamber.

"Every day there's something new," he told The Sun in a 1982 interview. "Some different kink in the way people take care of or abuse themselves. You find people with stories that they're old and sick and died, and then before you get through you discover a bullet hole and it turns out that somebody hurried them along."

Fisher, a Missouri native, graduated in 1937 from the Georgia Institute of Technology with a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering. He earned his medical degree from the Medical College of Virginia and was a Navy medical officer during World War II.

Before coming to Maryland in 1949 as chief medical examiner, he taught legal medicine and pathology at Harvard.

Fisher was 35 years old when he gained fame for helping solve the murder of Dorothy May Grammer, one of Maryland's postwar murder spectaculars.

The Grammer murder case unfolded in the early hours of Aug. 20, 1952, when a black Chrsyler four-door sedan rolled down Taylor Avenue toward Bel Air Road, then suddenly veered off the road, hit a tree and turned over on its right side.

Witnessing the crash were two Baltimore County police officers sitting in their parked patrol car sipping coffee. They raced to the car where they discovered the body of Mrs. Grammer jammed under the dashboard.

It was Fisher who concluded that her wounds were inflicted before the accident and not because of the accident.

"Murder - no ifs, ands or buts," Fisher said at the time.

"I said, uh-uh, this doesn't fit. She's got too many different lacerations of her head, she's got injuries that took time to swell and discolor. This doesn't happen in two or three minutes," Fisher said in the 1982 interview.

The investigation then turned to her husband, G. Edward Grammer, a metals company executive, who later confessed to the crime.

Grammer explained that he was in love with another woman and, after bludgeoning his wife, placed a heavy stone on the accelerator and sent the car down the hill. Convicted of first-degree murder, he was executed on the gallows on June 11, 1954.

Fisher was no stranger to controversy. In 1969, he and three other doctors re-examined the autopsy material related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

"We were given a very limited charge," he said in the 1982 interview. "To review the findings insofar as the wounds are concerned, of the president ... Nothing about the medical conditions otherwise. Only the wounds."

Fisher and the other physicians in the end agreed with the findings of the Warren Commission, that the president was shot from behind through his shoulder, and the bullet missed his spine and exited through the neck in front.

"And No. 2, he was shot high in the back of the head from behind and it tore out the whole other side of his head," he said. "And those were the conclusions from the original autopsy and we supported them."

The one aspect of the case that troubled Fisher was the inability to examine and study Kennedy's brain.

"What happened was, a couple of days after the autopsy, somebody in the White House decided they were going to put a lid on it ... And all the pictures, X-rays, write-ups. Autopsy reports and then brain were sent to the White House," he said. "And from there, nobody knows. Suffice it to say, the brain was never finished in its examination."

Fisher would like to have examined the brain and sliced cross sections for further review.

"This later step was never done," he said. "So there's really not an adequate description of the brain, which is really kind of crucial."

At Fisher's death, Dr. Benjamin F. Trump, who was chairman of the Postmortem Examiners Commission, said, "His mission was to use the dead to save the living. He was way ahead of his time. His goal was to save people - to improve their recovery, to help people in the future."

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