Today we tell the amazing story of Dr Bryan Finkle, who went from working at Swan Hunter via Scotland Yard to the US where as a forensic toxicologist he provided evidence into the deaths of celebrities like Elvis Presley, Natalie Wood, Marilyn Monroe as well as the Charles Manson case.
His expertise in drug use and toxins also saw him work with the NFL in America, the International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency on tackling performance enhancing substances in sport like anabolic steroids.
Bryan’s reputation is such that a science building has just been named after him, a fitting ending to an extraordinary career.
Now enjoying his retirement at home in Ennis, a town in Madison County, Montana, he described his life as “a pretty good outcome for a northern working-class boy, the product of State schooling, who fell in love with bio-science and forensic toxicology and was granted opportunities he couldn’t have dreamed of in his teen years.”
Bryan, 84, was born in Sunderland and later moved to Newcastle with his family, attending Lemington Grammar school which he left aged 16.
He studied Chemistry, Physics and Maths at Rutherford College of Advanced technology in Newcastle while serving an apprenticeship at the Quality Control laboratory at what was then Swan Hunter & Wigham Richardson.
He left for London in 1956 following the death of two men in a terrible accident in an oil tanker, one of them a close colleague.
Bryan said: “It was a signal event for me because I didn’t want to continue working there and I had applied for a position at the Forensic Science lab at Scotland Yard and was accepted to begin in May 1956.
“It was the turning point in my life and I found my professional niche.”
His life was to change again in 1963 after attending an International Forensic Science Conference in London.
“Two American forensic toxicologists were very interested in particular analytical techniques that I and a colleague were developing at the Lab,” he said.
“They invited me to the USA, to their labs as a visiting scientist.”
Bryan spent two years in the US working in Cleveland, Ohio then in San Jose, California, loving the lifestyle and country. When he returned home he couldn’t settle.
“After about three months I received an invitation to return to San Jose and be appointed to a permanent position as the County forensic toxicologist. I seized the chance.”
Forensic Toxicology is the study of poisons to investigate unexampled deaths and drug use.
He became a founder member of the California Association of Toxicologist as well as a member of the toxicology science department of the high profile American Academy of Forensic Sciences which introduced Bryan and his work to a national audience.
In 1973 a forensic pathologist colleague asked him to join him at the University of Utah Medical Center in Salt Lake City where he was setting up a State wide Medical Examiner system.
He helped the newly formed Center for Human Toxicology (CHT) in Utah, becoming its director from 1973 to 1983. Many notable cases were referred to it.
“We did do all of the postmortem toxicology following the deaths of Elvis Presley and Howard Hughes and others. I was consulted on the findings on Marilyn Monroe’s death.”
Although Marilyn died in 1962, due to prevalence of conspiracy theories in the media about her death, the office of the Los Angeles County District Attorney reviewed the case in 1982.
For the Charles Manson murders in Los Angeles he did the post mortem toxicology and for Natalie Wood who died from drowning he was consulted on the autopsy findings.
Bryan can’t divulge medical details, but he said: “The Manson case was a horror story and the toxicology interesting in its own right.
“There was a party in progress at the (Roman Polanski/Sharon Tate) home at the time of the murders and a variety of drugs being used. I was asked to work with the LA Medical Examiner’s Office to identify what they found and to determine them in the victims after death.”
Bryan said: “The Presley case was challenging from both the analytical extraction and identification of the drugs he was prescribed and of course the attendant media frenzy and general publicity.
“I was bound by court ordered silence and confidentiality but eventually went to Memphis and testified for the Coroner’s hearing and at the trial of the (Elvis’s) pharmacist who really became the ‘Fall Guy’ in the case.
“Howard Hughes died in Houston Texas but his doctors were from Utah which brought the postmortem work to CHT.
“The findings were interesting from a toxicology perspective but happily the publicity had a short life. He was reliant on massive doses of narcotics at his end and these contributed to his death.”
He resigned his position at CHT in 1983 and after taking a sabbatical joined the then small entrepreneurial company Genentech in South San Francisco, which is today a huge biotechlogy company where until 1989 he was director of the Department of Pharmacological Sciences.
However he was still consulted on forensic cases, particularly with his expertise with drugs and behaviour altering substances.
This led, around 1989, to an invitation to speak with the National Football League (NFL) about their plans to develop a “Drug Free Workplace” program together with a companion “Performance Enhancing Drug” prevention and detection program.
Bryan said: “This was a first in professional sports. Until then only the Olympic folks did any testing.
“I was asked to work with two physician colleagues to design and implement the programs for NFL. I was responsible for technical aspects and supervision of the laboratories.”
He was the Chief Consulting Toxicologist to the National Football League for more than 26 years until March 2015. It was through this work that he became involved with the IOC and eventually the World Anti-doping Agency.
Bryan formally retired from all of his professional responsibilities in 2017 except his position on the Laboratory Board of Directors on the Sports Medicine, Research and Testing Laboratory (SMRTL) in Salt Lake City where in 2020 its new building-laboratory the Bryan S. Finkle Building in his honour.
He still has family in the North East including a cousin in High Spen and has returned many times over the years. “Of course Newcastle has changed beyond recognition – and the Magpies. They were a force in the 1950,” he said.
“I love Northumberland and the Border Country, so different from the size and majesty of Montana but still wild in places and emotionally engaging, at least for me.”