State’s forensic anthropologist uses bones, science to tell a dead person’s story

Marcella Sorg
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Posted Jan. 19, 2014, at 6:17 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 19, 2014, at 10:49 p.m.
Marcella Sorg, University of Maine teacher and researcher who is forensic anthropologist for the Maine medical examiner's office, demonstrates how to use an osteometric board to measure long bone lengths in her anthropology lab at UMaine.
Nok-Noi Ricker | BDN
Marcella Sorg, University of Maine teacher and researcher who is forensic anthropologist for the Maine medical examiner's office, demonstrates how to use an osteometric board to measure long bone lengths in her anthropology lab at UMaine. Buy Photo
Marcella Sorg, forensic anthropologist for the medical examiner’'s offices in Maine, New Hampshire, Delaware and Rhode Island, examines teeth for a recent forensic investigation. Sorg also wears a lot of other hats, including being a research associate professor, jointly appointed to the University of Maine's department of anthropology, Climate Change Institute and the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center, and a UMaine teacher of forensics and anthropology.
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Marcella Sorg, forensic anthropologist for the medical examiner’'s offices in Maine, New Hampshire, Delaware and Rhode Island, examines teeth for a recent forensic investigation. Sorg also wears a lot of other hats, including being a research associate professor, jointly appointed to the University of Maine's department of anthropology, Climate Change Institute and the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center, and a UMaine teacher of forensics and anthropology.

ORONO, Maine — You can tell a lot about a person by looking at their bones.

Marcella Sorg, forensic anthropologist for the Maine medical examiner’s office, does forensic skeletal investigations using science to make determinations about a person’s identity or cause of death — sometimes dating back decades — and whether the person’s death was a result of a crime.

She can tell a person’s sex, their approximate age, height and build, whether they were right- or left-handed and what part of the world they originated from.

“I don’t believe in sensationalizing death. Period,” she said recently while in her University of Maine anthropology lab inside South Stevens Hall, with several life-size human skeleton models and scientific measuring devices all around the room.

Sorg is one of a team of scientific anthropologists who review U.S. military remains unearthed overseas, under the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii and the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command.

She has also been asked to identify the origin of a number of “trophy skulls” that have turned up in Maine as World War II veterans die and the skulls or other bones of enemy fighters they took as souvenirs of their military service, are found by their family members.

Sorg started out as a nurse in 1969, but quickly learned that solving mysteries was her forte.

She is a regularly published author on everything to do with the study of humans — especially involving the people of Maine and what is killing them.

“What I do is pretty integrated,” Sorg said of the many research projects she is working on or constantly updating.

Her official title at UMaine is research associate professor, jointly appointed to the department of anthropology, Climate Change Institute and the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center. Sorg also is the director of the Rural Drug and Alcohol Research Program at the Smith policy center, and teaches two classes, forensic anthropology and physical anthropology, at her campus lab.

She is also a guest researcher with a number of groups, including the federal government’s Community Epidemiology Work Group, National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Association of Medical Examiners.

Plus, “I get a lot of phone consults,” she said. “I do have multiple research projects so it seems like I wear a lot of hats.”

She later joked, “I do the research I do because I’ve never had a real job.”

Sorg is the forensic anthropologist for four states — Maine (since 1977), New Hampshire (since 1981), Delaware (since 2009) and Rhode Island (since 2006) — and is regularly called to recover and examine unknown human skeletal remains to determine the person’s identity and if the person’s death is the result of homicide.

Forensic anthropology is the application of the science of physical or biological anthropology to the legal process. In Maine, the medical examiner’s office looks into many different kinds of death, including violent, unexpected, suspicious and any that may have resulted from a criminal act.

“What took a person’s life, and what can bones, even fossilized, tell me,” Sorg said of her forensic anthropology job.

Sorg has also worked in substance abuse-related consulting and research since 1980, and since 1997 has researched the epidemiology of drug-induced deaths and has written two major reports that spotlight what drugs are killing Mainers.

The number of drug-related deaths in Maine has increased steadily over the past 15 years, she said, with only 34 overdose deaths in 1997 and 163 in 2012. Heroin overdose deaths quadrupled between 2011, when only seven Mainers died, and 2012 when 28 deaths were reported, but methadone deaths, which peaked in 2008, are decreasing, she said Thursday.

Most of the drug overdose deaths in Maine are considered accidental and are the result of the person combining illegal, diverted prescription drugs and alcohol, she said.

Sorg works closely with the national medical examiner community in the study of drug-related deaths, she sits on the Governor’s Substance Abuse Services Commission and the Maine Prescription Monitoring Program advisory board.

“It’s really a very complicated picture,” she said.

Sorg said that despite the many hats she wears, when she’s at work dealing with a person’s bones she doesn’t forget it’s someone’s mother or father, or sister or brother.

“It’s a very personal matter,” she said.

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