Oct 16 2018

Dr Barbara Zipser recently used her linguistic profiling skills to highlight a potential miscarriage of justice in a grisly child abduction and blackmail case from the 1980's. We recently caught up with Barbara to understand more about linguistic profiling, how her work on the cold case came about and her main research topic - Greek medicine. 

1. Could you tell us a bit more about yourself and your role within the Department of History?

I came to Royal Holloway in 2007 on a research grant. I then won a Wellcome Trust University Award, which led to a permanent post. I am now a Lecturer in the History Department, and I'm teaching the history of ancient medicine, science and technology. Apart from this, I'm also the Chair of Exams.

2. Can you tell us about your recent work on linguistic profiling on a German cold-case which bought to life a potential miscarriage of justice?

I completed a linguistic analysis of two ransom notes from a 1981 child abduction and homicide. A man was sentenced to life for the crime in 2010, but a number of questions remained unanswered. The brother of the victim then filed a civil suit for damages to have the case reopened - it's still ongoing. Amongst others, my analysis showed that the man who had been convicted is very likely not the author of the ransom notes.

3. What is linguistic profiling?

This term is mainly used to describe forensic text analysis. In this specific case, it was both the text as an abstract entity and the physical object itself that yielded a number of important clues.

4. How did your work on the cold-case come about?

I've been familiar with the case for a long time. It  has always had a very high profile in Germany, and newspaper articles often included a photograph of the ransom note. Earlier this year, I read an article on the current civil proceedings, and began to wonder why there was no mention of the linguistic evidence. I looked at some of the other news coverage and then decided to contact the brother of the victim to ask whether linguistic profiling had been done at all. The answer was no, apart from a brief expertise from the 80s. Then on Easter Tuesday, when College was closed and I didn’t have anything else to do, I ran an analysis of the letter and compared it to texts written by the man who had been convicted of the crime.

5. Can you tell us more about your main area of research – Greek medicine?

I've been working on the history of Greek medicine since my PhD at the University of Heidelberg. Now, my main focus is the manuscript transmission of general practice manuals, but I actually started with ancient ophthalmology.

My methods are very similar to genetics research. I reconstruct family trees of the manuscripts, and I look for insertions, deletions and mutations. For this, I get to use a lot of complicated computer software, which I greatly enjoy. I also sometimes travel to special collections, often overseas, to examine manuscripts, which is very exciting.

6. Do you have any interesting hobbies or interests?

I  have been singing in various choirs since the age of ten, with a few brief intervals. I enjoy it a lot, and in particular the sight reading and coordination it takes.

7. What’s your favourite term at Royal Holloway and why?

Spring term, because I am teaching the history of astronomy and also the history of ancient  robotics.

8. You may have seen our latest recruitment campaign, ‘Find your why’. We are interested to find out what Royal Holloway has helped you to discover about yourself…

My time at Royal Holloway has provided me with the opportunity to set up my own teaching portfolio. I never quite understood why humanities and sciences should be kept separate, and now I've created some space for students with similar interests. I am particularly fond of Explorers and Inventors in Classical and Late Antiquity because we get to work on transferable skills.