a delicacy, and gallbladders, used in medicines) and in determining
whether the bone or hair used in jewellery came from an endangered species. Convictions have resulted in fines ranging from a few thousand
dollars to $50,000, as well as prison terms.
“We’re advocates acting on behalf of justice for wildlife,” says the
67-year-old Dr. White, a genial man with white hair, a neatly trimmed
beard and a British accent. While he may not quite match the image of Gil
Grissom, the gruff-but-principled supervisor for nine seasons on the original CSI television series, he’s an effective spokesperson for his chosen field.
About the forensic cases, he says: “We’re not proving so-and-so did it. We
say the probability of anyone else having done it is one in six billion or so.”
In 1967, armed with a bachelor’s degree in botany from the University
of Nottingham, Dr. White noticed that McMaster University was advertising for graduate students in molecular biology; he emigrated to Canada,
settling in Hamilton, Ontario. In 1970, just four years after scientists
had cracked the genetic code, he accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at
the University of British Columbia, where his research mentor, David
Suzuki, drew him to genetics. He joined the faculty of the biology department at Queen’s University in 1973 and six years later spent a sabbatical
year in the biochemistry department of Imperial College London, working
on cloning technology. In the early ’80s he established – and ran for three
years – a DNA diagnostic lab at Kingston General Hospital, the first of its
kind in Ontario.
But part of Dr. White’s work involved breakthrough genetic research
on red-winged blackbirds and snow geese – research that in some cases
contradicted what behavioural biologists had believed for years. He had
waded into the middle of a battle raging between behavioural biologists,
with their emphasis on evolution and observation, and molecular biolo-
gists, who were using genetics to shed new light on previously accepted
theories. “At that time, the two sides saw themselves as mutually exclu-
sive,” says Dr. White. “We showed that they were totally synergistic, that
biology was an integrated discipline.”
At Queen’s, Dr. White’s fledgling wildlife DNA laboratory was little
more than an academic sideline; the staff consisted of him and a part-
time assistant. But in 1990, he moved to McMaster as chair of biology.
Not only was his alma mater close to his heart, but also it offered him the
opportunity to expand the wildlife DNA lab. Soon, the Ontario Ministry
of Natural Resources’ fish and wildlife division began using his services
for poaching cases and for investigations into game being added to meat
sold in supermarkets, which was against the law. One early case involv-
ing white-tailed deer illegally shot on Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron
proved a landmark: it was the first time DNA evidence involving a wild-
life-related crime was accepted in a North American court.
When the MNR announced it was moving its headquarters from
Toronto to Peterborough, Trent offered Dr. White the chance to relocate
the laboratory and be closer to his major client. Although Trent is often
identified by the public with the liberal arts, it’s the environmental and life
sciences that dominate, especially in graduate studies. In 1998 Dr. White
moved to Trent’s biology department. In 2001 he received a Canada
Research Chair in Conservation Genetics and Biodiversity and formed
LEFT: A forensic technician
gets ready to swab under the
claws of a black bear’s paw,
looking for human DNA.
A Ministry of Natural Resources
showcase about law enforcement includes a uniform and a
taxidermied otter and loon.