Creative Learning: Forensic Botany Class Goes from Science to Sculpture

In the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) Department of Botany’s Forensic Botany class, Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) research botanist Alex Wiedenhoeft gives his students full creative license when it comes to their final projects.

“They could even do an interpretive dance.” said Wiedenhoeft, “Although they’d have to interpret it for me, since I’m a botanist.”

Undergraduate student Jennifer Baccam appreciated the freedom of the assignment and chose an interesting medium to demonstrate what she had learned in Wiedenhoeft’s class: sculpture.

Jennifer Baccam’s sculpture of FPL’s Arthur Koehler.

Baccam is majoring in plant biology and when she heard about Wiedenhoeft’s forensic botany class, her curiosity was piqued.

“I love botany and have done lots of field work,” said Baccam. “This class seemed like an interesting way to meet the requirement of taking a laboratory class.”

In giving thought to her final project, Baccam wanted to know how forensic botany came about. When she began to research the topic, Baccam discovered it all began with a scientist named Arthur Koehler from none other than the Forest Products Laboratory.

Koehler was the chief wood technologist at FPL in 1932 when Charles Lindbergh’s infant son was kidnapped and a wooden ladder was nearly the only evidence at the scene of the crime. Koehler was asked to participate in the investigation and eventually testified in the trial. Based partly on Koehler’s testimony, Bruno Hauptmann was convicted of the crime, and subsequently executed.

At the time, no one had heard of an expert witness in wood. In fact, one of Hauptmann’s lawyers stated the following in objection to a question posed to Koehler: “We say that there is no such animal known among men as an expert on wood; that it is not a science that has been recognized by the courts; that it is not in a class with handwriting experts or with ballistic experts. But this is no science, this is merely a man who has had a lot of experience in examining trees, who knows the barks on trees and a few things like that.”

Koehler of course balked at this statement, and it was stricken from the record as the court deemed Koehler was indeed “qualified as an expert upon the subject matter.”

As Baccam read Koehler’s testimony, she found it plenty apparent that he was confident in his skills and abilities as a wood expert, and he stood behind what he had learned in examining the ladder as evidence.

Forensic Botany student Jennifer Baccam.

“Koehler came across as a larger-than-life personality,” said Baccam. This observation is apparent in her sculpture, in which Koehler’s bust is looming over the other aspects of the case that are represented, including the ladder itself.

Baccam’s curiosity about forensic botany continues to lead her down a new path, as she is set to begin working in FPL’s Center for Wood Anatomy Research with Wiedenhoeft soon, and will complete her senior thesis at FPL beginning in the fall.

“I’m lucky to have Alex as my mentor,” says Baccam. “Since the beginning of the Forensic Botany course he has helped me further realize that research is truly my passion. My perspective of my future is much less uncertain now.”

To learn more about Wiedenheoft’s forensic botany course, which he co-teaches with UW Professor Sara Hotchkiss, see this feature story from UW-Madison.