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Walter McCrone, 86; Expert on Light Microscope

July 28, 2002|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Think small" was Walter C. McCrone's sly motto.

Sly, because he was a giant in a very small world.

His world was chemical microscopy, which uses microscopical methods to solve problems, such as determining the age of an artwork or whether a stain is red paint or something more sinister.

He found that the legendary Shroud of Turin could never have draped the body of Jesus, a bold assertion he made in 1980 that was backed up some years later by more sophisticated carbon-dating tests.

He examined the Vinland Map, a famous document thought to have originated in the Viking era, and declared it a modern forgery.

He even analyzed bits of Beethoven's hair and confirmed that the brilliant composer had abnormally high levels of lead in his body, a condition that could explain his mental instability and death.

McCrone was Sherlock Holmes with a microscope, whose extraordinary ability to recognize the chemical structure of thousands of substances on sight left other scientists in awe.

"You can't be interested in microscopy and not have heard of Walter McCrone," said Skip Palenik, a McCrone protege who runs Microtrace Co. in Elgin, Ill. "He was literally the master of the instrument."

McCrone was 86 when he died July 10 at his home in Chicago. The cause was congestive heart failure.

An avid teacher who mentored many of the country's leading art conservation specialists, industrial chemists and forensic scientists, he is remembered for his passionate advocacy of the light microscope as a problem-solving tool.

That instrument is essentially a microscope with a light bulb, and is often disdained in analytical chemistry as a poor cousin to the electron microscope and other high-tech magnifiers. McCrone traveled the world to demonstrate the power of the humble device he favored.

"He was a real proselytizer," said Michael Schilling, senior scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute, who called McCrone the father of modern light microscopy.

"He always stressed in his classes that in most cases you could answer the question with just the light microscope," Schilling said. "I can think of few scientists who can make the same claim."

The microscope expert was founder of McCrone Associates, a private laboratory in Chicago staffed by scientists solving mysteries largely by microscopical analysis.

A native of Wilmington, Del., McCrone had intended to become a civil engineer like his father, who headed one of the first DuPont plants to produce cellophane. That goal was set aside when McCrone failed his engineering courses at Cornell.

He fared better in chemistry, however, and became a convert when he enrolled in one of the last classes taught by pioneering microscopist Emile Chamot. McCrone earned his bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1938 and his PhD in 1942, then taught for several years at what is now the Illinois Institute of Technology.

In 1956 he borrowed enough money to buy a $400 microscope and launched his own business.

He first gained widespread attention for his role in investigating the 1955 murder of an 8-year-old Canton, Ill., girl. A cabdriver had been convicted and sentenced to death for the killing. But when the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, McCrone was hired to examine a pair of the accused man's undershorts, which the prosecution maintained were stained with his blood. McCrone proved that the stains were red paint, and the cabdriver was freed.

As his reputation grew, McCrone was frequently asked to examine artworks. He authenticated rare paintings such as Da Vinci's long-lost "Christ Among the Doctors."

But the man who lectured widely on "What Every Good Forger Should Know" was perhaps best known as a debunker of myths.

In 1973 he was hired to examine the Vinland Map, which purportedly dated to AD 1440. Yale University, which had acquired the supposed relic in the 1960s for $1 million, enlisted McCrone to verify that it held proof of the Vikings' exploration of the New World 50 years before Columbus.

McCrone devised a special needle to dislodge tiny particles of ink from the map while avoiding visible damage. He found that the particles contained anatase, a type of titanium that was rarely found in nature--and unavailable commercially until the 1920s. These results led him to declare that the map was a fake.

Scholarly debate over the map's authenticity has ebbed and flowed over 30 years, but to McCrone the case was closed. He compared the probability of finding anatase in medieval ink to the likelihood "that Nelson's flagship at Trafalgar was a hovercraft."

In 1978 McCrone was asked to join a team of American scientists attempting to authenticate the Shroud of Turin, a 14-foot length of linen bearing the imprint of a body thought to be that of Jesus after the Crucifixion.

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