Spontaneous human combustion a 'myth'


STATE PATHOLOGIST Prof Marie Cassidy has described the idea of spontaneous human combustion as a “myth” enjoyed by fiction writers.

She was speaking at Dublin Coroner’s Court yesterday during the inquest into the death of Declan Dowling (59), Bulfin Gardens, Inchicore, who was found dead at his home on March 7th.

He died as a result of extensive burns and had a toxic level of alcohol in his bloodstream. His death had the appearance of spontaneous combustion.

Mr Dowling’s cousin Albert Reeves raised the alarm after becoming concerned that Mr Dowling had not called around to his house that morning to return money borrowed the previous Friday.

Garda Robert Fitzharris accompanied Mr Reeves to his cousin’s house and broke down the door.

He discovered Mr Dowling’s body in the back room of the house lying crouched on the floor. His fingertips and clothing were burnt, as was his stomach.

The area around him was undisturbed and there was no significant source of air to fuel a fire.

Prof Cassidy carried out the postmortem. She found burns on his head, stomach and thighs and found his abdomen had been breached.

Mr Dowling had inhaled no smoke, suggesting he was dead before the fire started. He had a high level of alcohol in his blood. Mr Dowling was a heavy smoker and Prof Cassidy said it was likely he had been unconscious when his clothing caught fire.

Prof Cassidy said his skin was then breached and liquefied fat had emerged, catching fire but burning very slowly at a low temperature, hence the localised fire and soot in the room. This is called atypical or sustained human combustion.

She described spontaneous combustion as a myth and a theory that has not been valid for 500 years.

Coroner Dr Brian Farrell returned a verdict of death by misadventure.

The issue of spontaneous human combustion hit the headlines earlier this year when west Galway coroner Dr Ciarán McLoughlin declared a 76-year-old pensioner had died as a result of the phenomenon.

Prof Cassidy said outside the court that spontaneous human combustion was a “misnomer”.

“It captures everybody’s imagination, this idea that somebody suddenly erupts into flame.

“The pattern is unusual in that the fire is localised to the body and the immediate surrounds because most fires that we deal with cause extensive damage to the fabric of the building, the body and everything else that is associated with it,” she continued.

“Because of that, this name tripped off the tongue. It goes back to Charles Dickens in Bleak House,where he describes a man dying with spontaneous combustion,” Prof Cassidy added.

Experiments using pig fat and skin had replicated the circumstances of so-called spontaneous combustion and confirmed a wick effect – where body fat burns very slowly at very low temperatures over a long period.