Moving from studying sea slugs on the Isle of Wight to solving some of Britain’s most notorious murders is not a typical career trajectory.
But Angela Gallop’s fateful decision at the age of 24 to divert her expert eye from examining plant and animal life to picking apart the minutiae of grisly crime scenes in the search for vital clues has helped put many of the nation’s most appalling killers behind bars.
Now one of the world’s leading forensic scientists, her job takes her to far-flung places like Libya, Iraq and Somaliland, but her introduction to the world of crime started in a suburban house in Harrogate.
The property, owned by the mother of actor Michael Rennie, was the unlikely Yorkshire base for the Home Office Forensic Science Service in the mid-1970s.
“It was a grand suburban house with a ballroom and stables. We grew cannabis for determining yields in the conservatory and in the stables we had a firing range.
“We used to do blood grouping in a little bathroom on the edge of a marble sink.”
Professor Gallop, originally from Oxford, fell into a career in forensic science by chance. After studying Botany at the University of Sheffield, she returned to Oxford to study a DPhil in Biochemistry, specialising in a project examining sea slugs on the Isle of Wight.
While she found the work fascinating, Gallop began yearning for a career that would allow her to use her scientific knowledge in the real world.
"I started applying for one or two post-doctorate posts but my heart wasn’t really in it. The problem with that sort of work we while it was really interesting, it only interested about six other people around the world.
“I wanted a more immediate audience for my efforts. One day, a friend of mine said there is an interesting advert in the paper for the Forensic Science Service and there was a job in Harrogate. I had enjoyed Sheffield so much, it was a brilliant place and I thought ‘I rather miss Yorkshire’.”
After joining in 1974, she was eventually sent to her first crime scene a couple of years later – what would turn out to be one of the victims of the Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe.
“We were just beginning to link the murders and were really worried about this man. The first crime scene I ever went to was a Yorkshire Ripper crime scene. It was a baptism of fire, the first time I had ever seen a dead body. I thought beforehand, ‘I hope I’m not going to keel over’.
“It ended up being a bit of a farce because I hadn’t got any scene gear. I was with my boss who is a tall man and I had to borrow his stuff. So I was wearing a huge anorak down to my knees and in size 11 Wellingtons when I have size six feet.”
She said to her relief professional instinct kicked in at the scene, something that has served her well throughout her career. “At a crime scene everybody is incredibly busy doing their jobs, trying to support the police. My boss was very professional and I quickly realised I had a job to do.”
Gallop, back in Yorkshire yesterday to receive an honorary degree from the University of Sheffield, says some crime scenes are particularly difficult to deal with.
“There are some cases where you can’t help having your heart wrenched, particularly with children. It is not that I’m not empathetic to the victims in every case but for some, you look and you think this is terrible, especially when it is children who haven’t had the chance to live a life.
“But the reality is you have got to get on with it and do things really quickly and really well and check everything you are likely to need. You have got to work out what happened, where the offender entered, what they did, what the course of events was. If you don’t do the right things, you might miss all the evidence.”
Another element of the job is going to court and presenting your findings - which will often be subject to intense scrutiny from barristers for the accused.
“It absolutely keeps you alert. You try to be at the top of your game for it. You never know where questions are going to come from, it can even be related to your appearance or your grammar in a report. They can challenge you about anything. Personally, I have found the lawyers who appear friendly get the most from you. When they are hostile, you put up more boundaries.
“It is challenging but it should be challenging if you are saying something fairly incriminating about their client.
“It keeps one determined to be the best in the lab. It is really important that the right person is convicted, especially if your evidence has anything to do with it.”
In 1977, the FSS set up a dedicated lab in Wetherby as realisations grew about the importance of having proper lab conditions for scientists to work in.
After moving to a similar role in Berkshire with the FSS in 1981, five years later Gallop decided to set up her own company called Forensic Access - this time to help defendants.
Gallop says she realised there was a problem with the justice system at the time in which defence lawyers did not have access to the same levels of expertise as prosecutors, leading to unbalanced evidence being presented to juries in some cases.
“I used to get a little bit frustrated when we had been at court and the evidence had its strengths and weaknesses but because it was in the hands of the prosecution, the strengths were promoted and the weaknesses not really brought out for the court to consider.
“Defence barristers didn’t have their own experts in those days and you would read the reports and see they had gone on about something rather irrelevant and missed out a weakness they could have brought out.
“You obviously balanced things in your reports but it was a Home Office service and supported the police. If the defence wanted to ask for something, they would have to put their requests through the police.
“The prosecution had all the cards and that struck me as not quite right. I thought it was high time respectable forensic scientists were able to provide a service for defence teams to bring that balance.”
She adds: “The reaction of my colleagues from the FSS was interesting. Some understood completely and one of my previous directors described us as ‘the last line in quality assurance’. But some of them couldn’t quite cope with it and I used to have difficult interviews with people who didn’t want to share everything. But if I couldn’t find out what I needed to know, then I wrote about it in my reports.”
One of her notable successes in private practice was proving that Italian banker Roberto Calvi, famously found hanging on scaffolding beneath Blackfriars Bridge in London in 1982, had been murdered rather than taking his own life.
Gallop says her painstaking work on that case brought home “the power of forensic science to sort things out for people”. “It was his family who commissioned the work because they couldn’t believe he would have committed suicide. They were staunch Roman Catholics and it was incredibly important to them and were very keen to get to the bottom of it.”
In 1997, she formed Forensic Alliance, an agency supporting police forces and the courts. The company initially struggled to get police to use their services, so offered to start looking at murders that had gone unsolved for years.
One of the cases she took on was the 1988 murder of Lynette White, a 20-year-old Cardiff sex worker who had been stabbed more than 50 times. Three men were convicted of murder in 1990 but their convictions were quashed two years later.
Gallop says: “It was an awful situation – they kept protesting their innocence but a lot of people in Cardiff thought they were guilty. Nobody was satisfied.”
Her team went back to the scene and examined the original woodwork at the property after stripping back paint that had subsequently been applied since the killing. A family search of the DNA database it identified the nephew of the killer who wasn’t even born at the time of the murder – but allowed police to track down the true murderer at long last.
Four years after the review began, killer Jeffrey Gafoor was jailed for life in 2003. Gallop’s company then played vital roles in finally securing justice for the families of both Damilola Taylor and Stephen Lawrence.
Ten-year-old Damilola Taylor was stabbed to death in November 2000 and a subsequent trial in 2002 of four youths collapsed against two of the defendants, with the two others found not guilty.
Following public outcry about the handling of the case, Gallop and her team reviewed it - finding the vital DNA evidence that eventually resulted in brothers Danny and Rickie Preddie being convicted of manslaughter in 2006.
“It was a question of the original scientist having missed some of the blood on items of clothing taken from the brothers," she says.
“The Met were under a lot of pressure, accused of not having learnt the lessons of Stephen Lawrence. All that was coming up again when it was completely unfair because it was down to a forensic scientist having missed the blood rather than their approach.”
That success was repeated again in the arguably even higher-profile case of Stephen Lawrence, stabbed to death in 1993 when he was 18. New DNA evidence was central to the eventual convictions of Gary Dobson and David Norris for murder in 2012.
Gallop says the case that has given her the most satisfaction is the infamous Coastal Path murders in Pembrokeshire. Her cold case review helped prove John Cooper had murdered brother and sister Richard and Helen Thomas in 1985, and Peter and Gwenda Dixon in 1989.
The case review started in 2006 and Cooper was eventually convicted in 2011.
Gallop says there had been a behind-the-scenes battle with police, who initially wanted the forensics team to concentrate solely on DNA.
But after persuading them that the scientists had their “hands tied behind their backs”, police agreed to expand the scope of the forensic investigation to look at textile fibres on clothing evidence.
“Almost immediately we starting finding what we were looking for.I can’t tell you how brilliant it was," she says.
“We amassed such an amazing array of evidence against such an awful violent man and it is such a good thing he is locked up.”
Gallop adds: “I can’t deny, it is very good if you find something that looks like it is meaningful. But there is still lots you have to do. You have to make sure the results are safe, there has been no contamination.
“With the Stephen Lawrence case and the Coastal Path murders, we had to do an enormous amount of work to make sure the results weren’t down to something else.”
In more recent years, Gallop has gone on to set up Axiom International, a company which provides British forensic science expertise to law enforcement agencies around the world.
The globe-trotting role has seen her support scientists in countries include Iraq and Libya.
“Forensic scientists are forensic scientists the world over, they are a great bunch of people. The thought we might be able to help them is terribly important to us.”
More than 40 years after starting her illustrious career, Gallop remains passionate about her work and clear about the motives which drive her.
“It is justice, it is fairness. My mum was a great one for fairness and saying you have got to be nice to people. I think it comes from that. The power of science is just incredible, it is amazing what we can do for people.”