Philosophical Society of Washington

Chemistry Against Crime

Walter F. Rowe
George Washington University

2220th Meeting Abstract
Friday, March 30, 2007 at 8:15 PM


The popular TV program CSI has sparked interest in forensic chemistry; this lecture tells what it's really like. Forensic chemists may find themselves analyzing a wide variety of samples: solid dosage forms of drugs, trace evidence (including glass, soil, hairs, fibers, paint and plastics), ignitable liquid residues, explosive residues and gunshot residues. Because they deal with such a wide array of possible samples, forensic chemists must be familiar with many different analytical tools such as chromatography and spectroscopy. They must also know how to use polarized light microscopes and scanning electron microscopes. However, the most important tool of the forensic chemist is careful scientific reasoning. The chain of reasoning will be demonstrated by a series of cases in which the author was able to uncover the truth about what had happened. These cases include a simple slip-and-fall accident, contamination of a shipment of industrial solvent and a death caused by a model airplane.

Walter F. Rowe

About the Author:

Walter F. Rowe is Professor of Forensic Sciences at George Washington University, where he has been a member of the faculty of the Department of Forensic Sciences for over thirty years. He served two years in the US Army crime laboratory system as a forensic drug chemist and forensic serologist. He has been a consultant forensic scientist to law enforcement agencies, prosecutor's offices and defense attorneys. He has also worked closely with Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld of the Innocence Project. He has contributed chapters to monographs and textbooks in forensic science, including one of the two main textbooks used for undergraduate instruction in the field of forensic science.

He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and a former member of the editorial board of the Journal of Forensic Sciences. He is also a member of ASTM Committee E30, which sets standards (including educational standards) for a variety of forensic science disciplines. He is a member of the Council of Forensic Educators and is a past president of that organization. He has a B.S. degree in chemistry from Emory University and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in chemistry from Harvard University.

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