Laureation address: Professor Dame Sue Black DBE, OBE, PhD, FRSE, FRAI, FRSB

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Medicine
Laureation by Professor David Crossman

Thursday 7 December 2017

Vice-Chancellor, it is my privilege to present for the degree of Doctor of Medicine, honoris causa,

Professor Dame Sue Black.

Sue Black is the Director of the Queen’s Award-winning Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee and the Director of the Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science. She identifies those who usually have not died from natural causes. Through her science, based as it is on observation of the cadaver and skeletal human remains, she has identified and documented many dead people, the results of which have often lead to prosecution and conviction of the guilty, and closure for the families of those left behind.

Dame Sue has described her journey to her success through many of the top-ranked programmes – for example, Woman’s Hour, the Life Scientific and Desert Island Discs, to name just a few. Those interviews, and my own with her, tell the same story and show the same person – someone slightly surprised by her fame, denying of a significant contribution to humankind and an intense sense that what has been achieved has been done through teamwork. The partnership she has with her family is especially strong, in particular with her husband, Tom, who is in the audience, who she first met at Inverness Royal Academy where he was a prefect - and she was not.

Sue was born in Scotland into a non-scientific family, which at one stage was in the hotel business. At 12 her school friend got a part-time job in a vegetable shop and Sue took a job in a butcher’s shop. She loved it, and the rest of the story really flows naturally from there. Let me fill in a few gaps though. Encouraged by her biology teacher at school, Sue went to the University of Aberdeen, the first in her family to go to university. She says the first two years were boring and then she got to do anatomy. A fourth-year project decided itself as she was unable to think of working with live rodents but the option of a project identifying human remains seemed the natural and obvious alternative for her. She stayed on to do a PhD in the same area of study, worked in London on paediatric anatomy and later returned to Scotland to work at the University of Dundee.

A‘game changer’ (her words) was a call from the Foreign Office in 1999. The work was to document and identify Kosovo’s mass graves in order to present the evidence to the then tribunal at The Hague. It was intense and emotionally challenging, especially the fieldwork. Stories are abundant and gruesome but what is clear is that Sue worked in a professional and detached manner with the dead, while maintaining compassion and care for the living, with whom she was conducting this project.

Her work in this arena was recognised with the award of an OBE. The investiture for this was in Stonehaven by a Lord Lieutenant of Aberdeenshire, at her request. I am told there was quite a party afterwards.

Much work has followed. Sierra Leone, where everything was horrible she has said, and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and a number of other high profile cases that have led to convictions. She highlighted to me a case which was very important to her – that of vindicating a mother’s long-held suspicion that her seven day old child was not buried in the coffin bearing his name. 

Currently, she is working on solving the question of what happened to the body of Simon ‘the Fox’ Fraser, the eleventh Lord Lovat and the last person to have a judicial decapitation in the UK. Paranthetical to this, I am told the said Lord was the originator of the term ‘laughing your head off’ as he found the collapse of his own scaffold sufficiently amusing to have a laugh immediately prior to his execution. Nonetheless, such notoriety comes with a downside and the exact whereabouts of his body is debated – it could be in the Tower of London or in the family’s Wardlaw Mausoleum near Inverness. The coffin at the latter location was exhumed in October this year and is currently the subject of Sue’s attention.

Dame Sue has many honours and the list is an exhaustive one. They include the Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun award for her contribution to Scottish culture, the Jephcott Gold Medal from the Royal Society of Medicine for scientific advancement and the Lucy Mair Medal for humanitarian assistance from the Royal Anthropological Society. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the also of the Royal Society of Biology.

Dame Sue Black is a high profile Scottish academic. She has excelled as a university academic through teaching and research. Her work has helped many hundreds of people to identify the remains of loved ones and bring closure to tragic events, as well as allow criminals to be brought to justice. Her work sets her in an important group of academic investigators who have, in a short period, made an impact for the benefit of society as a whole.

Sue Black’s work has embedded a respect for the dead and help for those left behind. Aurelius Prudentius wrote his Hymnus Ad Exequias Defuncti around 400 AD in Latin and, although you are all now familiar with Latin because of the passage of this ceremony, I will spare you my pronunciation and read a single verse from the Helen Waddell translation which fits well with Dame Sue’s work, care and consideration.

“Take him earth for cherishing,
To thy tender breast receive him,
Body of a man I bring you,
Noble even in its ruin.”

Vice-Chancellor in recognition of her major contribution to science and humanity I invite you to confer the degree of Doctor of Medicine, honoris causa, on Professor Dame Sue Black.


Professor Dame Sue Black's response

You’re very kind, and the spirits are with us.

It is such an honour to be here today and thank you very much indeed to the Principal and Vice-Chancellor, to Professor Crossman, to the academics and to you, fellow graduates of the University of St Andrews. I never ever thought you would let me cross the Tay to St Andrews and I’m deeply deeply grateful that you have.

You’ll be delighted to know this is really short, because one of the things that happens as you get older is that your memory goes and so, as much as I can remember, I will try to get to a very quick ending.

One of the other things that happens with advancing decrepitude, as I have, is it gives you a moment to step back and to look in your own rear view mirror and have a look at the path that you’ve taken. It allows you to look at those crossroads, those moments when you made a decision, and those pathways that have perhaps been left barren and never exposed. And on that path, there are three things that I hold very dearly and which, to me, have been good pieces of advice and that have stayed with me throughout my career and my life. If you will give me and grant me that, I will just share these three pieces of advice with you.

The first one is: work hard. In fact, more important than that, work harder than anybody else works, because it doesn’t matter where you come from, it matters who you are and it matters what you do with your life. There will always be people who are smarter than you, there will always be people who are better networked than you, but the one thing that is in your control and in your hands is just how hard you work.

I’m very honoured in Dundee University to have some great colleagues, and Professor Mike Ferguson in particular, and I know he shares that trait. He is one of the hardest working people that I know. I found out over breakfast this morning – and it wouldn’t surprise you to know – that your Principal and Vice-Chancellor also has that work ethic; it’s not a surprise. So don’t be lazy in life – get out there and work harder than anybody else does.

The second thing is: be brave, be bold, be different. Try not to take the same path that everybody else has taken. Take the chance to do something different, and in doing that something different, be prepared to fail spectacularly. In that failure, what you will have are the greatest successes of your life. Trust me, in the job that I do I know better than anybody that this life is short and what a dreadful waste of it if we choose to take a path that everyone else has trod before us. So go and do something different. I give you complete and utter permission to fail, and do it wonderfully and enjoy every single moment of it. Don’t ever regret the failures, because they show that you are trying, and they show that you are living.

And the third thing is, I think, the most important, and that is: be kind. It’s a world where there’s an awful lack of kindness and generosity of spirit. There’s a lot of mean and even, dare I say it, fake news out there. Let’s not keep it going: you have one choice at living. You got here today – and you’re so right to be proud of everything you have done to get here today – but I guarantee you, on your Principal’s life, you didn’t do it on your own. You had a team that was behind you; you had a mum, a dad, a granny, a best friend, a teacher, maybe one of your academic colleagues, who put themselves out, who believed in you, who had faith in you. And the thing that you have to do for me today – if you do nothing else can I please ask this one thing of you – is that you go out tonight and phone that person, email them, text them – whatever the heck that looks like – but make that contact and remind them just how important they are to you today in your success.

Because you didn’t do it alone. None of us do. It is a journey which we take alone but a lot of people will come as passengers on that bus: some will stay for a few hours, some a few days, some will stay a lifetime. And I am, I think, probably one of the luckiest girls on the planet, because I chose to marry my best friend, and not a lot of people do that. And can I say that if I had committed murder I would’ve been out by now…but he is the person who I went to school with; he’s the person who stayed with me right throughout my academic career. He’s the one that if you ask him ‘does my bum look big in this’ he will tell you exactly how big it is.

That honesty, and that truth, is what comes in the faith that we have of the people that matter the most to us. So I hope for you there is the equivalent of my Tom. If there isn’t, I can rent him out at a very good rate for anyone who would like to borrow him.

It is such a wonderful day; it is such a lovely day, and I am so grateful to St Andrews and to the University. And all I ask is that you go out and remind the people that you care about just how important they are in your life and how important they have been. Go out of here with a full heart, go out of here with a Christmas spirit and, between us all, given the number of people that is in this room, the amount of positive energy that can flow from that will be such a marvellous ending to today.

Thank you so very much indeed.