Identity, anatomy and the forensic conundrum (Discourse)

7.20pm to 8.45pm, Friday 22 February

The Theatre

The Royal Institution of Great Britain GB United Kingdom W1S 4BS 21 Albemarle Street London

This event has already taken place

  • Credit: Lancaster University


Free for Ri Members and Ri Patrons


Ri Young Members £7


Standard £20


Concession £15

Event description

At the core of ‘self’ is the unshakeable certainty of identity. Yet, when challenged, it can prove to be a fragile and fugacious construct. Whilst we may think we know who we are, others are also interested in whether we are who we say we are, and whether who we say we are is who we have always been. However, the personal certainty of identity can often lie in stark contrast to the probability of identity as established by the forensic investigator. Sue M Black will examine how our life’s history can be written into our anatomy and how the forensic anthropologist must learn the language of the biological code to uncover the clues and ultimately reunite the person with their identity.

About the speaker

Dame Susan Margaret Black DBE FRSE FRCP is a Scottish forensic anthropologist, anatomist and academic. She is Pro Vice-Chancellor for Engagement at Lancaster University.

Her entire career has demonstrated the importance of engagement whether that be with Government, non-Governmental organisations, the business community, investigative forces, funders, the media or the public.

She was the lead forensic anthropologist for the UK response to investigation of the war crimes in Kosovo and has also served in Sierra Leone, Grenada, Iraq in Thailand following the Asian tsunami.

She has been awarded two police commendations for her work in helping to secure convictions against perpetrators of child sexual abuse. 

Sue was awarded an OBE in 2001 for her work in war crimes investigations in Kosovo and in 2016 she was awarded a DBE for her services to education and forensic anthropology.

She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Royal Anthropological Institute, the Royal Society of Biology and she is the lifetime professor of Anatomy for the Royal Scottish Academy.  She has a research portfolio that has secured over £20M in total support, is the author of 14 text books and in excess of 150 peer reviewed publications.

More about Discourses

Discourses are one of the Ri’s oldest and most prestigious series of talks. Since 1825, audiences in the theatre have witnessed countless mind-expanding moments, including the first public liquefaction of air by James Dewar, the announcement of the electron by J.J. Thomson and over 100 lectures by Michael Faraday. In more recent times, we have had Nobel laureates, Fields medal winners, scientists, authors and artists – all from the cutting-edge of their field. Discourses are an opportunity for the best and brightest to share their work with the world.

Steeped in nearly two centuries of tradition, a Discourse is more than just a lecture. To keep the focus on the topic, presenters begin sharply at 7:30pm without introduction and we lock the speaker into a room ten minutes ahead of the start (legend has it that a speaker once tried to escape!) We also ask guests to dress smartly to add to the sense of occasion.

Find out more about the history of the Friday Evening Discourses on our blog.


Discourses are free for Ri Members and Ri Patrons. Join us today and support us on our mission.

Food and Drink

The Atrium cafe will be open before and after the talk. Check out the delicious menu and call 020 7670 2973 or email to reserve your table.

There will also be a cash bar before the Discourse, where you can relax, meet likeminded people with an interest in science, and have a drink.

Dress code

The dress code for this event is smart (ties optional, no jeans or trainers). Please note, if you are not dressed smartly you may be asked to sit in the gallery.

Timing note

Please be aware that this Discourse starts at 7.30pm, but all attendees must be seated in the theatre by 7.20pm. 

The doors will open at approximately 6.45pm.


This event will be filmed and on the Ri's YouTube channel within a few months. Subscribe for free to hear when new videos are released.


The theatre is on the first floor and there is step-free access from the street via lift.

The closest underground station is Green Park, which is step-free.

There is space at floor level in the theatre for wheelchair users.

Seating is usually unreserved for our events. If you and your group require seating reservations, please do let us know by email and we’ll be more than happy to help. Email:

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Our theatre is equipped with an Audio Induction Loop.  

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