Anil Aggrawal's Forensic Science Fiction: Story 5: THE MYSTERY OF THE DROWNED MAN



-Dr. Anil Aggrawal

The man had been drowned for five days!

At least that is what Dr. Khanna made me believe. Dr. Sunil Khanna as we all know is a leading forensic expert of our country and his opinion had to be respected.

Well! before proceeding further, I shall explain what forensic experts are. They are doctors who, among other things, cut up dead bodies and try to find out the cause and manner of death. After we completed our graduation in medicine, we decided to devote our energies to the detection of crime, rather than to the routine, drab, utterly boring checking of festering sores, furred tongues, missed heart-beats, aberrant pulse rates and bizarre temperature patterns.

Coming back to our case. The man was ultimately identified as one Ramlal. When the police made investigations, they came up with some rather dubious evidence that Ramlal had been killed by Jagga and then thrown in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Gujrat. It is well-known that in our country, criminals often kill their victims and then do dispose of the body by throwing it in this manner in deep ocean, river, lake or pond or some such similar body of water where it would be difficult to retrieve the body for quite some time.

But it so happened that I personally knew Jagga and was quite convinced that Jagga could not kill anybody. I talked to Jagga, and after talking to him, I became all the more convinced that Jagga was not the killer. When I talked to Jagga, he categorically denied his hand in Ramlal's killing. He requested me to save him from the clutches of the law.

Well then, if Ramlal had not been killed by Jagga, how had he died. I surmised that Ramlal must have gone to the sea shore for a bath and then must have been carried away by the tidal waves. He thus drowned accidentally.

But I was told that Ramlal was an accomplished swimmer. If this was true how could he drown accidentally?

Well, even accomplished swimmers have been known to drown in sea water. The tidal waves are really very strong, and can carry the person deep inside the ocean in no time. Before the person has time to think, he finds himself deep inside in the sea. The waves are so forceful that they do not allow him to swim back to the shore. The person gets exhausted and ultimately drowns. This is what should have happened to Ramlal.

But the law wants solid proof. The courts do not pay attention to mere conjectures. If I wanted to save Jagga, I had to produce some real good scientific evidence in favour of my theory of accidental drowning. The police was bent upon implicating Jagga. They had even requested the court and taken him in police remand for a period of 15 days. I had to do something fast.

I consulted Dr. Khanna and he suggested me that our question basically boiled down to proving that Ramlal's drowning was a case of antemortem drowning. If the police version was correct, then Ramlal's drowning was a case of post-mortem drowning.

Before proceeding further, I must tell you a little bit about ante-mortem drowning and post-mortem drowning, in case you are unaware of it. This is an age old question in forensic medicine and one for which no satisfactory answer has been found yet. Basically ante-mortem drowning means that the person drowned when he was still alive. Post-mortem drowning on the other hand, means that the person was first killed by someone and then thrown in water to conceal crime. While post-mortem drowning almost certainly points to homicide, ante-mortem drowning could be anything; accidental, suicidal or homicidal, roughly in that order. It is rather difficult for someone to drown a conscious adult person with homicidal intent, so on the face of it, a case of ante-mortem drowning goes against homicidal drowning.

I had to do an autopsy on the dead body of Ramlal and find out the cause and manner of his death. Now if I could prove that it was a case of antemortem drowning, it would go in favour of my theory that Ramlal had died accidentally while taking a swim. If on the other hand the autopsy showed it to be a case of post-mortem drowning, it would be a very strong evidence in favour of the police theory that Jagga had done him to death and then thrown away the dead body in the ocean.

Of course we forensic scientists know that one of the best ways to differentiate between ante-mortem and post-mortem drowning is to conduct the so-called diatom test. I won't bother you with details, but just give you the outline of the principle of this test so that you could follow the story better.

In all bodies of water- in rivers, lakes, ponds, oceans, even in tap water- are present some minute microscopic unicellular organisms called diatoms. These are microscopic algae with hard and highly refractile silicon shells. They come in all kinds of shapes; in fact about 15,000 different species are known. Under the microscope they all appear very beautiful and symmetrical, presenting rather a kaleidoscopic picture. Diatoms are quite abundant. A mere c.c. of water would contain literally thousands of diatoms.

Now if a man drowns while he is still alive, he would make violent efforts to respire. Water would enter his respiratory passages along with respiratory air, and would reach the alveoli, the fine balloon like terminals of the lungs. Sure enough diatoms would also reach the alveoli along with the water. Due to the violent respiratory efforts, some of the alveoli would get ruptured causing the water (and the diatoms along with it) to be sucked in the tiny blood vessels lining the alveoli. From here they would find their way to the left chamber of the heart and from there the aorta would pump this water (and the diatoms along with it) to all the conceivable organs of the body- liver, spleen, brain, bone marrow, everywhere.

In case the person was thrown in the water when he was already dead, neither his lungs, nor his heart would be functioning. Thus in the first place almost no diatoms would enter the lungs. If due to sheer pressure of water, some diatoms did enter the lungs, they would not be able to penetrate the alveolar wall. Further, for the sake of argument if we assume that the water pressure was enough to break some of the alveoli, and some diatoms did enter the alveolar blood vessels, they couldn't be pumped to all the systemic organs for the simple reason that the heart would not be beating. Thus a simple test to prove a case of antemortem or postmortem drowning was simply to look for diatoms in some internal organ, say liver or spleen or brain. If you found diatoms there, it was a case of antemortem drowning; if you didn't find any, it was of course a case of postmortem drowning.

When I conducted a post mortem on the body of Ramlal, I found all his internal body organs literally infested with diatoms. Diatoms were to be found everywhere- in his liver, spleen, brain, bone-marrow, everywhere. This naturally made me very jubilant, as this proved beyond doubt that my theory was correct and Ramlal had indeed died while he was alive.

But when I contacted Dr. Khanna with these findings, he seemed doubtful. He reminded me that the diatom test was in fact challengeable. Well, I will digress for a moment and tell you why he said so. It so happens that the diatoms are rather ubiquitous; they are present in all bodies of water- even in the tap water as I have already said. Now imagine a situation when a person has been drinking tap water all his life. Suppose he has an ulcer in his stomach (or for that matter, even some minor abrasion anywhere in his gastrointestinal tract) the diatoms would be entering his circulation all his life and be pumped throughout his internal organs. The internal organs of such a person would show diatoms irrespective of the cause of his death. Such a person might die of, say, electrocution and yet his internal body organs would show diatoms.

Dr. Khanna rightly told me that my findings could be challenged by a well-informed prosecution. I could see his point, especially as I knew the prosecution was taking the help of Dr. George Paul, another well-known medico-legal expert of our country. Certainly Dr. George Paul, when called to the court would rip my theory apart.

What should I do then? This question gave me many restless moments. Then like a flash of lightning, a possible solution crossed my mind. I recalled that a few days back, there had been a big oil spill off the coast of Gujrat. A big oil tanker had been bringing crude petroleum somewhere from the Gulf, when just off the coast of Gujrat, a crack appeared on the bottom of the tanker and many thousand tonnes of crude oil leaked into the sea. This incident had been the talk of several environmentalists, especially as this was causing threat to marine life.

Well, if there was crude oil in the sea water, and if Ramlal was breathing at the time of immersion (as I believed), then some petroleum must have seeped into his circulation, through the same route as the diatoms would normally take in a breathing man. This would result in traces of petroleum being present in his internal body organs. If I found traces of petroleum in, say, liver or spleen, I could prove my point beyond doubt. In that case, Dr. George Paul was definitely going to have a hard time explaining how it reached there, otherwise than what I was suggesting. We all know that petroleum is not a normal constituent of the body and no sane person drinks petroleum, so indeed there was no conceivable way for the petroleum to reach the internal body organs other than through ante-mortem drowning.

This naturally made me very jubilant, and I used our newly acquired Gas-Liquid Chromatograph to determine petroleum in Ramlal's body organs. But contrary to my expectations, Ramlal's internal body organs failed to show any trace of petroleum.

What had gone wrong? Well, Dr. Khanna suggested that may be I was wrong from the very beginning. Ramlal was indeed killed by Jagga first and then thrown in sea water. Otherwise why didn't I find petroleum in Ramlal's internal organs? Failure to find petroleum there meant only one thing- that Ramlal was not respiring at the time of his immersion in water.

But I refused to believe Dr. Khanna. Something deep inside my heart told me that Jagga was innocent. But if he was innocent why was I not getting any traces of petroleum in Ramlal's internal body organs? That was the sixty-four thousand dollar question.

Soon I forgot the question anyway. Meanwhile Dr. Khanna and I jointly started an ICMR project in which we intended to find out the etiology of solvent abuse or glue sniffing. It is a poorly understood phenomenon, in which the addict gets an inordinate pleasure in sniffing various hydrocarbons. Most commonly sniffed substances include various glues, paint thinners, gasoline, chloroform, carbon tetrachloride and so on. We were trying to find a biological cause for this phenomenon.

It so happened that one day I was talking casually to Dr. S.K.Gupta, Professor of Biochemistry in our college. He was working on some new cellular enzymes, and his work was being internationally appreciated. While talking to him, suddenly a weird thought crossed my mind, and I ran back to my department, silently crying "Eureka", much in Archimedean fashion. Thank God I had my clothes on!

I retrieved some of Ramlal's tissues I still had in bottles, and brought them back to Dr. Gupta. I asked him to look for a specific cellular enzyme, which had not been discovered till then. Dr. Gupta, as is his wont, told me I was a fool, but I let that pass, and asked him to look for that enzyme anyway.

But after a few days, Dr. Gupta was quite surprised that I was right. He could indeed find the enzyme I had asked him to look for. In fact he reported that the cells were very rich in that enzyme.

I know you are getting curious. What was that enzyme, you may ask. You will laugh at what I will tell you, but you can confirm it from Dr. Gupta who has lab reports to confirm my statement. In fact even he would not have believed me, had he not found the enzyme himself.

This was an entirely new enzyme. An enzyme which metabolizes hydrocarbons! Dr. Gupta suggested that we should call it Petroleum dehydrogenase. Dr. Gupta found 50 microgrammes of Petroleum dehydrogenase per c.c. of tissue, which is quite high as you can understand. A minor mutation in Ramlal's body gave rise to that enzyme. He was a mutant in other words.

Well, how does this fact fit in our story. I will tell you shortly. But first things first. While talking to Dr. Gupta, I was subconsciously working on my own multifarious problems and suddenly it occurred to me that the solution to my problems lay in the realm of biochemistry. Perhaps Ramlal had an enzyme in his tissues which metabolized any petroleum that had seeped in his body cells during drowning. Now we were indeed able to find that enzyme in Ramlal's body cells. This changed our investigation much in our favour.

I will tell you what happened. Ramlal was indeed breathing at the time of immersion. Some petroleum did seep inside his circulation and got deposited in his internal organs as explained earlier. Molecular death, as we all know occurs a few hours after the somatic death. Somatic death is the time when a doctor pronounces a person dead. But we all know that molecular activity continues for a few hours after that. During the interval between the somatic and the molecular death, the enzyme Petroleum dehydrogenase metabolized any traces of petroleum that had seeped in Ramlal's body tissues. That was the reason why we did not find any traces of petroleum in Ramlal's body despite the fact that he died while still breathing.

You might say this is spurious reasoning. It is quite possible that there was no petroleum in Ramlal's tissues in the first place. Merely the fact that the enzyme Petroleum dehydrogenase had been discovered in Ramlal's tissues does not necessarily mean that this was responsible for the absence of crude petroleum in his tissues. This was certainly one of the possibilities but the possibility of crude petroleum being absent in Ramlal's tissues from the very beginning could not be ruled out.

I knew if confronted with my new findings, Dr. George Paul would certainly come up with this question. So I decided to play one up on him from the very beginning. I took out Ramlal's preserved tissues once again, and looked for the metabolites of Petroleum in them. I had worked out its metabolites in detail, and one of them was 2-Butyne. In my renewed analysis with my Gas-Liquid Chromatograph, I looked not for petroleum but for its metabolites, mainly 2-Butyne.

You can perhaps imagine my joy when I found fairly rich quantities of 2-Butyne in Ramlal's tissues. Earlier when I was not specifically looking for it, I met with failure, but now I knew what I had to look for and sure enough I got it. All of us know that 2-Butyne is not a normal constituent of body cells. Thus the only way it could have accumulated in the tissues is through metabolism of crude petroleum by the enzyme Petroleum dehydrogenase. This was the final vindication of my theory. Of course if Ramlal had survived longer, even 2-Butyne would have got metabolized further to carbon dioxide and water. Petroleum dehydrogenase was capable of metabolizing all hydrocarbons down to their very basic elements.

I knew I had killed two birds with one stone. I enquired from his family members and was quite satisfied to find out that Ramlal was a glue sniffer. In fact I was quite sure of this fact when I was submitting his tissues to Dr. Gupta.

I will tell you now what happens in a glue sniffer. These glue sniffers are all mutants. They have the enzyme Petroleum dehydrogenase in their body cells. Petroleum dehydrogenase is able to metabolize not only petroleum products but all hydrocarbons, liberating a good amount of energy in the process. These glue sniffers sometime during the course of their life discover accidentally that sniffing hydrocarbons gives them a renewed sense of well-being. What actually happens is that they are able to metabolize the hydrocarbons quite effectively which gives them short bursts of energy, which they construe as a sense of rejuvenation or well-being. They ultimately get addicted to the hydrocarbons.

So now Dr. Khanna and I had hit upon an entirely new and novel theory of glue-sniffing. Initially Dr. Khanna was quite hesitant about accepting it, but I am happy to tell you that since my fateful meeting with Dr. Gupta, I have submitted blood samples of more than 50 glue sniffers to Dr. Gupta and he has found Petroleum dehydrogenase in all of them, which is a good confirmation of my theory! Thanks to Ramlal's death mystery, we found out a solution to an age old forensic question. Oh, yes, I must also tell you that the court admitted my findings and released Jagga.

But the thing that satisfied me most, was that when Dr. Khanna read our paper on glue sniffing at The International Conference on Drug Addiction at Tokyo next year, it was adjudged the best paper of the conference!



This story was published in Spandan, 1995-96 on Pages 13-17



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