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Reasons for suspecting James Cowan interfered with the Somerton Man Case

Biochemistry is the application of chemistry to the study of biological processes at the cellular and molecular level. It emerged as a distinct discipline around the beginning of the 20th century when scientists combined chemistry, physiology, and biology to investigate the chemistry of living systems.

Doctor James Cowan was a qualified biochemist and was employed as such from 1923 to 1950, rising to the rank of Deputy Government Analyst for the South Australian Government Department of Chemistry.


On 2nd December 1948 Dr. Cowan received from Dr. Dwyer a glass jar containing the Somerton Man’s stomach and contents, another containing his liver and muscle, a bottle containing his urine and a bottle containing his blood. Cowan was asked to determine whether any poisons were present.

He failed, saying he was unable to identify any poisons. Dr. Dwyer said he was ‘astounded’.


In late January, not long after the Somerton Man’s suitcase was found, Dr Cowan was asked to determine what was the black powder shaken from a particle brush found amongst the Somerton Man’s possessions.

He failed, saying he was unable to identify the substance.


In late January Dr Cowan and Professor Cleland took custody of the Somerton Man’s possessions, including the trousers he was wearing when found. It was here Cowan, the Deputy Government Analyst for the South Australian Government Department of Chemistry took it upon himself to remove his own shoes to try on those worn by the Somerton Man together with his slippers (GF 65).

It was here Professor Cleland found the Tamam Shud Slip inside the fob pocket of the trousers both he and Cowan had been handling during their examination of the dead man’s clothing. The slip that wasn’t there when PC Moss searched the same trousers the morning the body was found.

The rest is history.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Clive #

    If Dr Dwyer ‘was astounded’ that Cowan didn’t find any poisons, I would have thought that Dwyer would have sought a second opinion, despite Cowan’s position? As for the black powder, surely there must have been someone in Adelaide who could have taken a sample and come up with the answer? The distinct impression is that Cowan was ‘advised’ not to do a thorough job and, in his position who was going to question his authority?

    April 20, 2022
  2. Cowan decided to test for common poisons only. In other words he didn’t think it was necessary to test for uncommon poisons as he had made up his mind prior to doing the job. Not what you would expect from a man of his position and experience, nevertheless his decision was accepted by the coroner without question. No wonder Dwyer insisted his deposition include the words ‘I was astounded.’

    April 20, 2022

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