Spontaneous Combustion Controversy Rekindled

Human male and female - anatomical features po...
A diagram showing where fat occurs in the human body. Not gratuitous nudity at all.

Thank you, Professor Marie Cassidy, for putting the sane side of the story.

A couple of months back I was horrified by a coroner here in Galway describing a case of a body catching fire as “spontaneous human combustion”. Working on a comparable case, Professor Cassidy took the opportunity to call that description a myth. And as State Pathologist – and a professor of forensic medicine – she is perhaps better qualified on the subject than a GP.

To be as fair as possible to that coroner (Dr. Ciaran MacLoughlin), I’m sure he wasn’t envisioning the phenomenon as it appears in fiction: A person becoming so saturated with alcohol – and possibly sin – that one night they just burst into flames. But in finding spontaneous combustion to be the cause of death, he asserts that living people can ignite of their own accord. Which is… nuts.

What does seem to be a real – if rare – phenomenon is a person’s dead body catching fire and burning with no source of kindling other than their clothes or perhaps the chair they were in. The simple if somewhat disturbing fact is that we contain a lot of fuel. Human fat – which even the most svelte of us have – is basically oil after all.

What’s not real is the spontaneity bit; an external cause of ignition is sometimes hard to find, but it seems more than likely that there always is one. Nor is the entire body consumed as in a cremation – despite what some of the more sensationalist papers reported. And it was most certainly not, even in this case, the cause of death. There was good evidence that the ‘victim’ was already dead when their body caught fire.

So how did MacLoughlin conclude that this was spontaneous human combustion? By logical fallacy, apparently. Fire investigators had found no proof that any nearby source – including the open fire burning in the grate – had ignited the body. (One wonders how you could prove that.) He appears to have taken this lack of proof that it was the source as proof that it was not. In formal logic, this is a category of error known as being a dur-brain.

Well, Professor Cassidy can put down the myth of spontaneous human combustion. What she can’t do is quash the rumour that we have state-appointed medical professionals in this country who believe it.

5 thoughts on “Spontaneous Combustion Controversy Rekindled

  1. Iam 68 years. Something I never forget: When I was (maybe) 7 years old: Looking in the sky late at light I saw la large white oval light moving slowly
    towards the pointer of the thunder/lightning attractor of the Mosta large Catedral Dome. I did not go on the roof to see it being absorbed and driven to earth. But I am very sure it was so absorbed….
    Later I learned that it was propable a very large ball lightning. Surely if such a ball lightning touches it surely spontaniously burn you.
    I als know of another real case…..

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