Forensic Anthropologist Clyde Snow Committed to Exhuming the Truth


Considered the world’s leading forensic anthropologist, Clyde Snow travels internationally to unlock secrets of the dead.

The 73-year-old Oklahoman has identified thousands of victims of disasters, accidents and violent crimes. In many cases, he’s discovered how individuals died and aided law enforcement officials in bringing their killers to justice.

“It’s challenging work, and a lot of these cases turn into interesting detective stories,” Snow said. “There’s a feeling that we’re actually doing a little good out here.”


Some of Snow’s cases are high-profile. He helped identify Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele’s remains, identified the bones of a scout who died at Little Bighorn with Lt. Col. George Custer, reviewed John F. Kennedy’s autopsy photographs and examined the remains of boys and young men killed by John Wayne Gacy.

But Snow’s rise in an exacting and difficult science couldn’t have been predicted during his youth.

He was a rambunctious teen and a poor student. For years, he lacked direction. He received bad grades in high school and was expelled for a firecracker prank. He attended military school, where a roommate taught him how to study. But though Snow learned to write notes on index cards, memorize them and improve his test scores, his educational victories were short-lived. When he transferred to Southern Methodist University, he flunked out.

“I’ll be frank with you, I was having fun,” he said. “I just kind of drifted around.”

While searching for a career path, Snow attended a series of schools and changed majors several times. He finally graduated from Eastern New Mexico University in 1951. He then studied archeology, medicine, zoology and primate biology and served in the Air Force before deciding to specialize in anthropology.

The discipline intrigued him. Suddenly, he was able to achieve the dedicated focus he so lacked in his youth.

Though Snow’s schooling was erratic, his work history was anything but.

As he worked on his doctorate, he took a job as a physical anthropologist at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Civil Aeromedical Institute in Oklahoma City. There he built dummies for simulated crashes, measured airline personnel for engineering projects and aided in redesigning seat restraints and escape systems for commercial aircraft. By 1968, he was head of the laboratory.

Snow’s work wasn’t limited to ergonomics. When commercial airlines crashed, he investigated how passengers died. He used his scientific knowledge to help identify victims and analyze crash environments.

He developed a reputation for not playing political games.

During one of Snow’s studies, in which he analyzed three air disasters, he upset some FAA officials by reporting: “All three of the accidents had this in common: that impact injuries were nonexistent or minimal.”

Passengers had died trying to reach the exits as fires broke out, Snow said. Adult males under 55 were twice as likely to survive the stampede to the exit as females and seniors, according to his findings. Children had only a 1-in-10 chance of getting out safely.

FAA officials, upset by Snow’s statistical portrait of “jungle law” aboard the nation’s planes, asked him to soft-pedal his report, according to Christopher Joyce and Eric Stover, authors of “Witnesses From the Grave: The Stories that Bones Tell” (Little, Brown & Co., 1991). But Snow refused.

One of Snow’s biggest challenges came in 1979, when American Airlines Flight 191 crashed, killing 273 people aboard. He worked 16-hour days with a team of medical investigators, dentists and X-ray technicians examining more than 10,000 body parts.

During the crash’s investigation, Snow searched for effective ways to quickly and accurately identify victims. He enlisted a computer programmer to devise a database program--believed to be the first of its kind--that could store, track, sort and match victims’ physical information and medical and dental records with skeletal remains. When his team was done, only 29 of the 273 victims remained unidentified.

The Oklahoma City medical examiner’s office soon sought Snow’s help in identifying skeletal remains. He became an expert-on-call for the department; deputy sheriffs dumped paper sacks full of bones on his desk.

Forensic anthropology was still a young field at the time, with few established experts. Snow had to learn as he worked. He read books and articles about skeletal identification. He kept up with developments in the field. He also continued to cultivate a reputation as a careful, thorough professional.

It was not unusual for Snow and his team of investigators to take as many as 200 skeletal measurements for a case. Attention to detail was paramount in Snow’s work.

“These cases really exercise your mind,” he said. “You’re presented with a puzzle and you have to find answers through the evidence preserved in the skeleton--who they were, how they died, what injuries and diseases they suffered. We’re basically trying to construct the life history of the person from the evidence in the skeleton.”

Snow also said “disciplined curiosity” is the key to his work.

“It’s a way of taking natural curiosity and channeling it productively,” he said. “Unbridled curiosity is not a good trait for a scientist.”

In 1984, Snow’s career took an abrupt turn when he was asked to help investigate civilian murders that took place in Argentina during its military regime. Snow accepted the job because he foresaw an important new application of his field: chronicling governments’ criminal treatment of their citizens.

“That was a tremendous stimulus,” he said. “The idea of using forensic anthropology for human rights violations was something new. This was the beginning.”

He also felt that identification of the dead might bring closure to families and communities. And individuals in unmarked graves could be given proper burials.

From 1976 to 1983, more than 10,000 Argentines disappeared. Many were taken to detention centers and never heard from again. Other desaparecidos, or disappeared ones, were buried in graves marked “N.N.” for no nombre, or no name.

Before Snow’s arrival in Argentina, untrained workers had plowed into the mass graves, inadvertently destroying evidence and skeletal remains.

“They were out there with bulldozers, digging up cemeteries. It was a mess,” Snow said.

He realized he had to train Argentines in proper excavation techniques so evidence could be preserved.

“Word had gone out in the student community that an old gringo needed some help,” he said.

Local university students hesitatingly volunteered to aid Snow. But they expressed fear about the seemingly ghoulish undertaking. They had many questions for him, and, in response, he gave them moral support.

With Snow’s help, the students persevered. They uncovered evidence of executions and brutal beatings: bullet holes in skulls, “perimortem” (near the time of death) fractures in arms and finger bones, typical of defense injuries. They helped identify desaparecidos in mass graves.

Snow eventually served as chief witness for the prosecution of several Argentine generals and admirals. At least five were convicted and imprisoned for their participation in the killings. Snow also helped Argentina’s human rights undersecretariat launch the country’s national forensic science center.

Today, he continues his human rights forensic anthropology work and has trained investigators in more than 20 countries.

Snow admits he sometimes is still startled by the atrocities that humans commit against each other. But evidence of such heinous crimes makes him, if anything, more determined to continue his work.

Years ago, in an El Salvadoran village, Snow found the skeletons of 136 infants and children whom army death squads had sprayed with machine gun fire and obliterated with grenades. In Vukovar, Croatia, he discovered the remains of 200 hospital patients and staff who had been executed by soldiers. Images of the ghastly findings stay with him.

“You develop a lot of empathy,” he said. “We see these horrible things and you develop empathy not only with the victims but with the survivors. But we have to keep that under control, too. We can’t let that affect our scientific objectivity. We can’t let these things influence what we see.”

Though Snow said he’s slightly curtailed his overseas travel in recent years, he still is deeply committed to his work.

He intends to continue to be of service to those who need his expertise. As a teacher, he hopes to pass along critical knowledge to those just entering the field.

“I always say there are no stars in this business,” he said. “You’re working as a team. I’m 73 years old, and it’s hard work. Some of these places are extremely remote and inhospitable. Now I tell [my teams] I’ve reached the age where all I have to do is [complain] and tell them what to do.

“But I’m still not standing around. I’m helping them get started.”