Science says: Bring your hip flask to the morgue

High-percentage spirits in the physician's bag can help, among other things, to secure important evidence in a setting where a deceased person or a crime victim is involved.

Spirits can be used as diagnostic aids

What at first glance may seem a bit bizarre is actually useful in everyday practice: High-percentage spirits in the physician's bag can help, among other things, to secure important evidence in a setting where a deceased person or a crime victim is involved.

Maggots, in particular, are important aids in forensic medicine, as they allow the exact determination of the moment of death of a person. However, in order for this information to be professionally evaluated, the maggots must be collected onsite and preserved immediately. The best fluid preserve is a 70% alcohol solution, which, nonetheless, is often not part of a physician’s basic equipment, except for forensic experts.

However, two forensic physicians have now published a very interesting paper in which they examined different common spirits for their conservation potential. Among them were drinks such as vodka or rum.

The conservation of insects and maggots with potable alcohol is of course not completely in line with current guidelines, which generally prescribe a 70% alcohol level. However, none of the drinks have such a high alcohol content. Vodka usually has a 38% alcohol content, while rum often has a range between 40% and 42.5%. Do the maggots in such spirits match the needed preservation states that a 70% alcohol can provide according to the guidelines?

Results indicate that commercially available spirits are capable of preserving the maggots and insects found on deceased persons sufficiently well. Even after up to three years, the samples obtained in this way were still useful for evaluations. However, some spirits quickly discolor the maggots or change their size due to shrinkage processes. 

Since the length of the insects is important to determine the time of death of a deceased body, the researchers found that high-percentage vodka or rum varieties caused less change in the samples. About 50 maggots are sufficient in a sample collection, and these should be well covered with alcohol, or if necessary, be put directly into the bottle, according to the forensic experts.

However, humans already knew that the preservation of biological material with spirits works well. It is well known that English sailors, for example, placed their Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson in a rum barrel in order to preserve his body as intact as possible on his long journey back to England, after his death at the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21st, 1805.

Original publication:
Niederegger, S. & Mall, G., Preservation of forensically relevant fly maggots in schnapps; Rechtsmedizin (2019) 29: 491.

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