Nov. 8, 2012— -- Lois Gibson, who holds the Guinness World Record for being the "most successful" forensic artist of all time, has helped Houston police solve 1,266 crimes by identifying criminals and victims.
She is one of only 26 such professionals in the United States, so few that they all know each other.
For years, police have worked with dentists and anthropologists who are able to reconstruct skeletal remains to identify victims. But now, Gibson has suggested that dermatologists can be just as important in solving crimes.
In an essay that recently appeared in the journal Clinics in Dermatology, Gibson argues that more crimes could be solved if dermatologists worked more closely with law enforcement. They are experts in scars, lesions and skin abnormalities, after all.
"Knowing how someone may have gotten a scar, for example, is a clue investigators could use," she said.
In one case, Gibson worked with a witness who described a dime-sized keloid scar on an armed robbery suspect's forehead. The sketch helped police track down the man, and he confessed and the crime was solved.
Gibson's crusade against crime came from personal experience. At the age of 21, she was a model and dancer, living in Los Angeles. But a horrific rape changed her life, setting a course that would lead her to become a forensic sketch artist.
"I got attacked by a guy who almost choked me to death for 25 minutes straight," said Gibson, who is now 62 and works for the Houston Police Department. "When he finished, I was bleeding down my throat and my eyes."
"Like nine out of 10 girls, I was too traumatized and wanted justice -- but I couldn't get it," she said.
Later, by accident, she witnessed police violently handcuffing and beating a man she recognized as her rapist. "I saw the arrest," she said. "I know what it is to see justice ... It changes your life."
Gibson, who always had a talent for drawing, was motivated to get a degree in forensic art from the University of Texas at Austin.
For the last 14 years, she has taught her craft at Northwestern University's Center for Public Safety.
Jason Stamps, director of the professional training division at the center, said Gibson's course in forensic arts has been popular among students. "She is very well-regarded," he said. "It's a very hands-on course."
Dermatologists could use her drawings of a described scar to determine if it is the result of a burn or a surgical procedure, or even a bad car accident.
"You never know what detail might solve a crime," said Gibson.
"This actually is very cool," said Dr. Josh Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research in the dermatology department at Mt. Sinai in New York City. "Everyone has skin and no one has perfect skin, and there are different types of skin lesions that are identifiable."
Scars typically go through a wound-healing phase. "New scars are red and that redness tends to fade over months and years," said Zeichner.
There are also different types of collagen in scars. "We can actually identify how new or old a scar is," he said, enabling dermatologists to potentially give police a timeline for an injury.
"Picture you are the detective and you really want this guy," she said. "You make an announcement in the newspaper and talk about a unique thing -- one scar in a certain place. The news people will write or talk and dwell on that item even more."
More than anything a scar or skin lesion "brings attention" to the person -- whether it's the victim or the criminal, said Gibson. "Maybe that's the thing that pushed you into calling the police."