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  • Long-time forensic anthropologist in Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office died Jan. 31

    Feb 02, 2015 | Read More News
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    Walter H. Birkby, a nationally known forensic anthropologist who worked as the county’s forensic anthropologist for more than 40 years, died early Jan. 31. He was 83.

    Walt BirkbyBefore retiring in 2009, county officials named the forensic lab in the Pima County Medical Examiner’s office the Walter H. Birkby Forensic Anthropology Laboratory. He testified as an expert witness at dozens of murder trials, identifying the remains of murder victims or, in more recent years, those of migrants found crossing the southern Arizona desert.

    A Korean War veteran, Birkby earned a doctorate in anthropology at the UA and built Arizona State Museum’s Human Identification Laboratory. Birkby and his lab quickly became an indispensable resource for both archaeologists and police investigators looking for clues in the skeletal remains of the dead. The demand for his expertise had him traveling around the country, sometimes around the world, to work at archaeological sites or appear as an expert witness in murder trials.

    Birkby came to the UA in 1963 as a graduate student. He stayed for his Ph.D. and eventually became curator of physical anthropology at Arizona State Museum. Birkby also taught numerous courses on forensic anthropology and drew a dedicated following of students, including Bruce Anderson, the county's current forensic anthropologist.

    “He was the most genuine, kind, knowledgeable man I ever met,” said Anderson. “He was a preeminent forensic anthropologist for almost 50 years who instilled in his graduate students a sense of doing the right thing.”

    Anderson remembered Birkby as a punctual Marine who was in the lab at 7 o’clock every morning to make the coffee but who never left before 5 p.m. Except Fridays.

    “He thought it was important to socialize with students,” said Anderson, recalling many Friday afternoon gatherings at The Shanty, a Tucson tavern. “He thought it was important to knock off an hour early to discuss things with his peers and his students.”

    Pima County Medical Examiner Gregory Hess appreciates the contributions Birkby made to the field of forensic anthropology. “Certainly, he’ll be missed. He was one of the pioneers in forensic anthropology.”

    (Photo courtesy Jacob Chinn/UA Alumni Association)