Enter the Forensic Pathologist
The Hong Kong inquest into the death of superstar Bruce Lee in 1973 required a professor of medicine to be flown in from London. This is the story of that man.
A Saturday evening in 1960’s Middlesex, UK. A young man, of about mid-twenty in age, is discovered brutally injured from fight injuries in a side-lane. He is barely alive and does not survive thirty hours in hospital. In their murder investigation, the police struggle to find evidence that will help identify the perpetrators of this merciless assault. The investigating C.I.D officer calls in help from Scotland Yard.
Professor Donald Teare, the consulting expert, describes this case in his essay, The Scotland Yard Autopsy (1968). Teare was able to clear up the matter expeditiously. Dissection showed internal bruising much more extensive than what appeared externally. There was more bruising than caused by a fist, but not sufficiently localised to indicate the use of a car jack or similar weapon. The “weapon” in this case, Teare was confident, were shoes.
On Teare’s advice, the C.I.D officer leading the investigation flushed the area with investigators looking for those with a reputation for fighting dirty. Within three weeks, the police had identified a gang that could plausibly have committed the crime. While the suspects initially denied any involvement, one of them admitted to wearing altered foot-wear. The shoes did not look much different from any other ordinary pair. However, they had been altered — with padded toe caps. This hidden modification was what had made them capable of doing enough lethal damage to kill a person.
Born on the Isle of Wight in 1911, the son of a newspaper proprietor and a farmer’s daughter, Teare begun his training in medicine at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. Subsequently, he enrolled at St. George’s Hospital, London and came under the tutelage of legendary pathologist, the “large and avuncular” Dr. John Taylor (to whom Teare is said to have born increasing resemblance as he aged).
Teare’s most notable academic legacy was publishing a case series in the British Heart Journal that is now widely considered a “citation classic”. The paper presented the first contemporary account of a heart condition now known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. This condition leads to an abnormal swelling of one side of the heart and can cause sudden cardiac arrest and death, especially in young sportsmen. For a time, the condition was referred to as ‘Teare’s asymmetrical hypertrophy’.
A rugby player in his younger days, Teare also had an interest in motorsport racing, being associated with the Bentley racing team at Le Mans. He was, for a time, a captain at Woking Golf Club and often seen at the Pavilion at Lord’s. Teare was well-regarded by his colleagues for his easy going collegiate geniality, fair-mindedness, and dry sense of humour. The outstanding feature of his character was described as an “unsensational common sense and sound judgement”. As a pathologist assisting official investigations, he built a reputation for never answering a question which did not thoroughly understand and was not provoked into a rash reply — making him an extremely valuable witness under cross-examination during deposition in criminal cases.
Given this background, and his own personal interest in sport, Professor Teare was unusually well-qualified to provide expert assistance in a case involving the sudden death of a young athlete, like a martial artist.
Late, the night of 20th July 1973, news began to circulate that Hong Kong’s most notorious resident, the action movie star Bruce Lee was dead.
Rumours about the actor were extremely common, so the story was initially dismissed with scorn. Then, news spread that his death was being officially confirmed. Bruce Lee’s business partner and producer, Raymond Chow, gave a statement to a press. Spending a quiet evening in with his family, Lee had felt unwell while playing with his toddlers. Shortly, thereafter, he had been rushed to hospital. Doctors were unable to resuscitate him. Bruce Lee had died. He was just a few months from turning thirty-three years old.
This version of events, however, attracted immediate disbelief.
Bruce Lee had carefully built an image as the embodiment of Asian strength and virility. In his public lectures and fight technique demonstrations, Lee evangelised a philosophy of art, training and living that he called Jeet Kun Do and claimed it powered his film performances. Lee had starred in three action-movies as the lead at the time of his death. In The Big Boss, Lee played an everyman labourer capable to taking on entire mobs of men single-handedly. In Fist of Fury, he was a Chinese nationalist street-fighter avenging the murder of his shifu, battling Japanese occupiers and their European allies (evoking the insurgency lore of the “Boxer Revolt” of 1901). In Way of the Dragon, which he directed himself, he played a fresh-off-the-plane Chinese restaurant waiter who proceeds to clean up the town, including the hulking Chuck Norris. He was reputed to be the “world’s fittest man” — a vehicle and outlet for the hopes, dreams and frustrations of the common Chinese man — and, barely in his early thirties. How could he just collapse and die?
A tip-off was received at one of Hong Kong’s most aggressive gossip rags: a call from the girlfriend of a man who drove the ambulance that took Lee to the hospital. The patient had not been collected from his home but that of the actress, Betty Ting Pie. A reporter checked the hospital records and, sure enough, the emergency call for the ambulance had come not from Bruce Lee’s mansion, but from Betty Ting’s apartment.
The next edition of the newspapers screamed that Bruce Lee had died in the “fragrant chamber of his mistress”.
Given Bruce Lee’s notoriety in Hong Kong, the case attracted extreme public scrutiny. The pressure on the authorities was only to increase. On the 26th of July, 1973, barely a week after his death, Warner Brothers released Enter the Dragon in theatres. It was Bruce Lee’s magnum opus and the first major Hollywood production with an Asian man in an action lead. The film was a blockbuster. The manner and timing of Lee’s death left too many questions unanswered. The pressure ratcheted on the authorities to legally record the cause of Bruce Lee’s death as accurately as possible.
On the 3rd of September, 1973, an official inquest to determine the cause of Bruce Lee’s death began its proceedings. The judge entrusted with leading the proceedings was Justice Elbert Tung. Three layman were elected to the jury, Fun Kee Wai, Robert Frederick Jones and Kan Yet Wan Ramon. The inquest, normally an extremely dull legal proceeding ignored by even houseflies, attracted such a massive crowd that the police were forced to erect barriers and conduct crowd control. In the sweltering humidity of a packed courtroom, the focus of interest were Bruce Lee’s wife, Linda Lee, his producer and business partner Raymond Chow, and the actress in whose apartment he had died, Betty Ting.
The Crown was represented by public prosecutor, Joseph Duffy. Linda Lee, had arranged to bury her husband in Seattle, Washington, where she believed they had spent the happiest period of their lives together. His pall-bearers at the burial included Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Chuck Norris, and George Lazenby. Entrusting their young children, Brandon and Shannon, to the care of her sister, Linda had flown back to Hong Kong to attend the inquest. She had a lawyer, T.S. Lo, to protect Bruce’s reputation.
The most aggressive attacks on Lee’s character would come from the lawyer representing two insurance companies, David Yapp. The American International Assurance Company (AIA) had issued a policy for US $200,000 on the 1st of February, 1973 and Lloyd’s of London had issued a policy for US$ 1,350,000 on the 30th April, 1973. While signing the forms, the pro forma that he did not consume illegal narcotics had been ticked. If the inquest found that Lee’s own actions, such as the deliberate consumption of drugs for recreation led to his death, the insurance companies would not pay out a dime on the policies.
The first witness to be called was Bruce Lee’s oldest sibling, Peter. Peter Lee had a Phd in physics and had represented Hong Kong at the 1958 Commonwealth Games in fencing. He testified that he last saw his brother in April, when he came over for a visit. To Peter, Bruce seemed perfectly normal. David Yapp, the insurance company’s representative asked him if he knew that his brother was in the habit of consuming cannabis. Peter replied in the negative.
The second witness was Raymond Chow.
Chow claimed that on the day he arrived at Bruce Lee’s home at 3pm for a two-hour script revision meeting. Then, they drove down to Betty Ting’s apartment near 5pm, for another two and a half hour production meeting concerning their ongoing project, Game of Death. Towards the end of that meeting, nearly 7.30 pm, Bruce complained of a headache. Ting offered him a headache tablet. Lee took the pill. He started to feel really drowsy and wanted to lie down. Chow left to have dinner with the actor, George Lazenby. Ting and Lee were to join them once Lee was done with his nap.
After several calls between Ting’s apartment and the restaurant, Ting told Chow in rising panic that she could not rouse Bruce. Chow returned to find him in what appeared to be peaceful sleep. They shook him but could not wake him up. They called a doctor, Dr. Eugene Chu. When Dr. Chu could not revive Lee they sent for an ambulance. Lee was taken to Queen Elizabeth Hospital where he was declared dead at 11.30pm.
After a lunch break, the next witness to be called was Betty Ting. Her testimony largely corroborated Raymond Chow’s. Chow and Lee had come over for a meeting about their film under production. Lee complained of a headache. He took a pill from her, grew drowsy, and asked to take a nap. After that, they couldn’t revive him.
Ting was followed in the witness box by the doctor who had been called to attend to Lee, Dr. Eugene Chu. Dr. Chu testified that when he arrived at Ting’s apartment, he was told that Bruce Lee had developed a headache and had taken a tablet. He had then wanted to take a nap, but no one could wake him up. He confirmed that he checked the tin foil of the tablet’s wrapper. It had the word “Equagesic” on it.
Dr. Chu testified that the tablet was a mild tranquilliser with an analgesic effect. It was stronger than regular aspirin but harmless — unless a patient had a hypersensitivity to it.
There were even bigger crowds on the second day of the inquest. The witnesses for the morning session were the paramedics and doctors who had attended to Bruce Lee at Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
First up was Pang Tak Sun. He was the senior paramedic who had responded to Dr. Chu’s call for an ambulance. He said he received a call at 10.30 pm for a “person-collapse” case. They went up to a second-floor apartment where they were met by the doctor and few others. On being pressed by Linda Lee’s lawyer, in the light of the speculation that Lee had died during sex, the paramedic confirmed that the patient was tidily dressed in European clothes and still had his boots on.
The next witness was Dr. Chan Kwong Chau, the casualty ward doctor who admitted the patient at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. He stated that he found that the patient had no heartbeat, no respiration, both pupils were dilated and not reactive to light. The patient had been brought in clinically dead. He tried to resuscitate the patient for five to ten minutes before sending him to Emergency.
Dr. Cheng Po Chi, the emergency ward doctor, was the next witness. Dr. Chi, too, observed that the patient had no pulse or respiration. Thinking him to be dead, he began the last juncture protocol to revive him. He gave the patient an adrenaline shot to the heart. It did not work. Bruce Lee was certified to be dead at 11.30pm.
After the lunch break, the focus shifted to the first police officials on the scene. The forensic pathologist and police detective testified that they did not see any signs in Betty Ting’s apartment of a fight or a struggle. The pathologist testified that he did not find any obvious poisonous substances in the flat or any evidence of physical violence.
After the testimonies of the second day were concluded, the judge had a surprise announcement: there was going to be an adjournment in the proceedings. The next sitting of the inquest would be after a two-week break.
In 1939, a brilliant Czechoslovakian bacteriologist named Frank Berger arrived in England as a refugee from the war. Initially, he found work as a refugee camp doctor. Of Jewish ancestry, fleeing the Holocaust, and witness to the agonising ordeal of his wife’s childbirth, Berger’s life experiences shaped a belief that the invention of medicines were crucial for the alleviation of needless human suffering.
In 1943, he was hired by a government laboratory to work on one of the miraculous by-product inventions of the war effort: penicillin. Penicillin was extremely fragile and there was a requirement to find ways to preserve it, especially during transport. After about two years of work, in 1945, Berger synthesised a compound that he called “mephenesin”. Mephenesin was an effective preservative for penicillin. However, Berger discovered it had another remarkable side-effect: when injected into laboratory small rodents, it produced deep muscle relaxation.
He described the effect in a paper in the British Journal of Pharmacology in 1946: “Their eyes were open and they appeared to follow what was happening around them.” Berger described this sleep-like yet alert state as “tranquillization”.
After the war, Berger emigrated to the United States. Beginning at the University of Rochester Medical School, he proceeded to the increasingly lucrative private pharmaceutical sector. He was appointed Director of Laboratories at Carter-Wallace, New Jersey. When Berger initially synthesised mephensin, he was only able to produce a liquid form which needed to be injected. Additionally, the effects were very quick acting, and disappeared very fast. It would take him nearly ten years to produce a tablet form of the compound which could be patented.
In 1884, Henry Wellcome and Silas Manville Burroughs had introduced a then revolutionary American pharmaceutical innovation to the United Kingdom: medicine in the form of small, swallowable pills. There was some resistance in imbibing medicine via a gulping swallow, a motion that needs to be learned, like swimming or cycling. Wellcome’s publicity drive via the pill chest — every important celebrity including Prime Ministers, Presidents and explorers of Africa and the Arctic were gifted pill chests and became unwitting brand endorsers — ensuring that pills became a common and convenient method of medicine eating.
“Tabloid” grew to be the most valued trademark of the Burroughs-Wellcome corporation. A typical product poster for the company boasted of products such as ‘Tabloids of Compressed Drugs; Pepsin Tabloids; Quinine Tabloids; Saccharin Tabloids; and Voice Tabloids’. Passing into everyday usage, and the trademark has now become synonymous with “small tablet”.
In 1955, a more potent and slowly metabolising form of mephenesin in tablet form, that Berger had developed with chemist Bernard Ludwig, was granted a patent. They called this drug meprobamate. It was the first in a family of synthetic psychoactive drugs that now also includes Valium and Prozac. While today, anti-anxiety medication is a multi-billion-dollar industry, in 1955, pharmaceutical executives at Carter Wallace were not convinced that “anxiety” was an illness at all. Furthermore, the conventional understanding was that talk therapy was the treatment of choice for such mental health issues, rather than pills and medication.
The word “tabloid” has also come to be associated with a particular form of journalism. The paper size of this format, approximately 17 by 11 inches (432 by 279 mm), is half the size of the broadsheet format. The content of this kind of newspaper caters to mass curiosities and provides a specialised diet of news of extreme political opinion, violent crime and murders, miracle cures, the supernatural. Its special focus, however, is celebrity gossip, scandal and sex. This form of media, along with glossy lifestyle magazines, would be crucial in promoting what Andrea Tone describes in Age of Anxiety as the United States’s “tranquilliser culture”.
In a branding exercise, the tranquillising tablet was named “Miltown” after Milltown, a township in Middlesex Country, New Jersey. Carter-Wallace hired the advertising firm Ted Bates & Company, the same agency that designed the campaign around Wonder Bread, but more crucially: M&Ms.
The firm placed advertisements in medical journals but the appeal to doctors was limited. However, their strategy to market the drug through tabloids resulted in terrific rewards. Celebrities almost endorsed the drug for free, talking about its miraculous properties in alleviating their highly stressful work. Lucille Ball, Lauren Bacall, and Tennessee Williams were all known users. In 1955, Milton Berle — television’s first star talk show host — openly joked on his variety show that he should be called “Miltown Berle.”
Miltown — also sold under the trademark Equagesic (the name Dr. Chu had seen on the crimp of tablets that lay beside Bruce Lee) — went on the market in May, 1955. It earned $7,500 dollars. By September, it had risen to $218,000 dollars. By December, it was $2 million. Not only had meprobamate successfully created the new disease of anxiety, it had also provided the solution.
The world of managing anxiety through tablets and pills was here.
On the 10th of May of that year, Bruce Lee had suffered a collapse and another health scare. Rushed to hospital, he had been treated by his family physician, Dr. Don Langford, a Tulane-educated American missionary surgeon who worked at the Baptist hospital, and a consulting neurologist, Dr. Peter Wu. Judge Tung considered this collapse to be of significant importance to the inquest. He had scheduled an entire day for a discussion about its probable cause and its impact on the actor’s death.
Behind the scenes, it had become apparent that all the local Hong Kong medical experts had arrived at the consensus that Lee’s death was most probably caused by cannabis. Not only Dr. Langford and Dr. Wu but also Dr. R.R. Lycette, a New Zealander who had conducted the official autopsy, shared this opinion. It would bear heavily on the jury if the pathologist who had conducted the autopsy, as well as two of Bruce Lee’s personal physicians were to testify that they believed his death had been caused by a cannabis overdose. While Linda Lee would present evidence from two authorities in the United States stating that cannabis had no such medical history, this evidence was documentary and did not have the same impact as an expert testifying in court personally. The odds were that the jury would agree with the doctors presenting evidence in person.
The effect of a legal finding that cannabis could kill a human being would be felt far beyond Bruce Lee’s reputation. Not only would further confusion be spread about the pharmacological effects of cannabis, it would affect the law of life insurance. The muddying of the science of pathology would have a catastrophic domino effect. To sort out this confusion, the inquest was paused so that a senior academic could be flown in from London and provide proper, authoritative guidance. Being no stranger to being consulted on cases from all corners of the United Kingdom and many other parts of the world as a Scotland Yard specialist, the brief landed on Professor Donald Teare’s desk. However, he could only clear his calendar and arrive in two weeks. The case was important enough for the Hong Kong authorities to wait. This was the reason Judge Tung had adjourned proceedings.
Upon landing in Hong Kong, Professor Teare called a meeting with the three medical experts, Dr. Lycette, Dr. Langford and Dr. Wu, who were ready to depose that they believed cannabis could cause a lethal overdose. As Albert Goldman put it in a two-part essay on Bruce Lee in Penthouse magazine, “Hashish in Hong Kong is even more exotic than opium in New York.” In Hong Kong, cannabis was thought of as a far more toxic and reprehensible than opium.
With characteristic bluntness. Dr. Teare laid the cards on the table. The reputation of the medical community of Hong Kong was on the spot. In Dr. Langford’s later recollection of the meeting: “If one was going to decide that the chemicals in marijuana were dangerous and could be lethal, then that conclusion shouldn’t be decided in some little bitty, insignificant backwater like Hong Kong”. Dr. Langford was outraged and saw Professor Teare’s intervention as trying to tamper with the witnesses.
It could be argued that Teare’s attempt was to draw attention to the factually inaccurate basis of their medical opinion. The line between a fact and an opinion is, however, often difficult to demarcate — whether in law, medicine or journalism. Even so, Professor Teare’s warning to his colleagues about being on the spot was borne out of painful personal experience. Not only is an expert witness aggressively cross-examined, a coroner’s inquest becomes part of a permanent historical record. There is no hiding for a medical expert who gets it wrong.
Professor Teare was more than aware that when a medical consultant made a mistake, particularly out of moral consideration in a criminal law proceeding, the ripples of that error could have disastrous consequences.
Almost two decades ago, at 2pm in the afternoon on the 2nd of December, 1949, Dr. Teare had conducted the autopsy of a woman thought to be the victim of a gruesome but all too common form of domestic crime (the charity Refuge estimates, based on ONS’s 2019 statistics, that two women a week are killed in the UK by their partners). Professor Teare was then a thirty-nine year old early career consulting pathologist. Authorities believed that the victim had not just been strangled by her mentally-deficient husband in an abortion gone wrong, the man had then also killed their baby daughter in panic. Teare had a particular fascination for illegal abortion, and had authored several papers on the subject over the years, starting with his student days at Cambridge.
The main witness for the prosecution had been a neighbour at 10 Rillington Place. His name was John Christie. At the time, the Chief Inspector conducting the investigation regarded Christie (who had worked as a special police constable) as a decent sort of man. Additionally, Professor Teare’s testimony in court confirmed the horrific violence that the victim had been subjected to and that her death was caused by strangling. He had also noted a scar in the vagina of the victim, and stated that in his opinion, the scar was created while the woman was alive and was most probably evidence of an attempt to self-induce an abortion. These testimonies collectively secured a successful prosecution. The husband was convicted of murder, and executed, on 9th March, 1950, by hanging.
Three years later, on the 24th of March 1953, three dead bodies, hidden in a wallpaper-covered alcove in John Christie’s kitchen were discovered by accident. Christie had fraudulently sub-let his premises to another couple and vacated his rooms at 10 Rillington Place. In subsequent searches of the premises, the police discovered two more bodies in the garden, and the body of Christie’s wife, who hadn’t been answering letters to her relatives, was found beneath the floorboards of the front room. Investigations revealed that Christie had a long record of criminal antecedents. Not only should he never have been appointed as a special police constable, his character and testimony were dangerously untrustworthy.
Given the circumstances, the shoddy investigation and terrible evidence collection, it could never be established beyond reasonable doubt that Timothy Evans deserved to be executed for the murders of his wife and baby daughter, Beryl and Geraldine Evans. While the authorities would stonewall and claim for decades that it was possible for two murderers to share a roof, it was plainly obvious there had been a serious miscarriage of justice.
The discovery that the police had overlooked that John Christie was a serial killer started to snowball into a major public crisis. Not only did it appear that the authorities had executed someone on sketchy evidence, a serial killer and extremely conniving predator had been left on the loose to kill several more women. This was the model of justice that the British had exported around the world, in colonies such as Hong Kong, as an example to be emulated. On closer inspection, it wasn’t even fit for purpose in Notting Hill.
Almost a decade after the case, Teare was still answering questions about his findings. On the 11th of December 1959, Professor Teare answered a letter from a journalist named Ludovic Kennedy about the evidence for sexual assault in an autopsy he had conducted. The correspondence continued to the early months of the next year. Buoyed in part by these exchanges, Kennedy wrote a landmark book on the wrongful execution of Timothy Evans, claiming Teare’s findings proved that Beryl Evans’s murder fit the modus operandi of John Christie. Despite Teare attempting to row back on Kennedy’s interpretation of his findings (the two exchanged open letters in The Times and The Spectator), Kennedy’s book heavily influenced the public perception of the case. It became instrumental in a broader reform of criminal justice in the United Kingdom. The death penalty was abolished in 1965 and access to abortion legalised in 1968.
The subsequent public debate about the 10 Rillington Place murders, which required Professor Teare to clarify his work several times over, to commissions of inquiry and journalists, especially the nature of post-mortem bruising, uncovered a glaring omission on his part: he had not conducted a swab for the presence of semen that would have conclusively established sexual assault.
The failure by Dr. Teare to conduct the swab wasn’t a brain-fade or incompetence. The truth was that, in 1949, the protocols in cases like this were extremely rudimentary. The decision to take a vaginal swab of a married woman, even one allegedly murdered by her husband, was considered a delicate matter left to the subjective determination of the attending pathologist. That the death occurred in the circumstances of an illegal abortion made the case even more sensitive. Only later, with hindsight, did a swab become a mandatory part of the protocol.
Despite his dogged belief in the methods of medical science, empathy, considerable work ethic and immense popularity amongst his colleagues, the hanging of Timothy Evans — and, Teare’s part in the proceedings and steadfast refusal to accept his errors — would forever remain a blot on an otherwise stellar career.
When the inquest was restarted, two weeks later, the focus was firmly on Lee’s cannabis habit. In effect, the inquest had turned into a referendum amongst the medical experts on whether cannabis could trigger a fatal allergic reaction.
Linda Lee was the first to be recalled to the witness box. David Yapp, the insurance lawyer, pressed Linda Lee on Bruce’s 10th May collapse. The attempt was to establish that the collapse was connected to habitual drug-taking. In response, Linda Lee produced a sworn affidavit from Dr. David Reisbord — a United States neurologist with whom Bruce had undergone a check-up after his recovery. In Dr. Reisbord’s opinion, a small dose of cannabis was not harmful and had nothing to do with the collapse. Furthermore, in his affidavit, Reisbord argued that marijuana had no history of causing fatality.
The young widow had recognised the precarious financial position she was in (with the responsibility of raising two young children by herself) and was scrambling to stop the insurance companies from refusing to pay out on their policies. She had used the adjournment to replace her previous attorney with a more aggressive one: Brian Tisdall. Bruce Lee had once hired him to sue a newspaper for libel.
Raymond Chow was next to be recalled. As Matthew Polly puts it in his biography: “Linda had a life insurance she needed to secure, Raymond had a movie he needed to sell.” With Tisdall examining Raymond Chow, the discussion entered on film set injures, how often Bruce Lee took blows to the head, and whether these blows could have caused concussion and death. Chow testified that Lee often suffered terrible blows because the stunts he wanted to perform were so extreme.
Yapp brought the testimony back to cannabis. He pushed Chow to answer when he knew that Bruce Lee consumed cannabis, given how important Chow’s personal business interest was vested in Bruce Lee. Chow replied that he had heard for the first time in his life that Bruce Lee had consumed cannabis during the inquest. Yapp seeking to discredit Chow even further demanded to know whether Raymond Chow had issued a statement to the press stating that Lee had collapsed at home playing with his toddler’s on the evening of his death. Chow replied, to raucous boos from the gallery, that he had issued no such statement.
Unfortunately for the public, the entertainment to be had was over. After a brief re-examination of Dr. Chu by Tisdall, the crown prosecutor declined to recall Betty Ting to the stand. There was a sharp intake of disappointment. The evidence concerning the circumstances surrounding the death were now on record. From this point onwards, the inquest was going to more in the nature of a medical conference rather than the final scene from an Agatha Christie novel.
The fourth day of the inquest was dedicated to the deposition of the government chemist, Dr. Lam King Leung. The deposition, to a common person, was not much different from watching an old, creaking fan slowly stir the air on a hot, humid day.
Dr. Leung took six hours to go over, in excruciating detail, the tests he had done to assist the autopsy. He had conducted tests for every type of poison and chemical known to man — mercury, arsenic, bismuth, antimony, lead, alcohol, morphine, and even aphrodisiacs like Spanish Fly. He confirmed the presence of cannabis and Equagesic — but in trace quantities insufficient for an overdose. The deposition eliminated the possibility of poisoning as a cause of death.
It was the fifth day that was going to be the most contentious from the view of expert medical testimony — the reason Professor Teare had to be flown in all the way from London. It opened with Linda Lee taking the witness box once again. This time she submitted another expert opinion. It was from Dr. Ira Frank at the UCLA titled “Clinical Studies in Cannabis.” Dr. Frank’s conclusion was the same as Dr. Reisbord — there were no history of substantiated cases where cannabis was fatal to a human being. One of the jurors asked Linda Lee if she had produced the opinion for the purposes of insurance. She replied in the negative, saying her only motive was to clarify the real reason behind the death of her husband.
Dr. Langford, who had been deeply offended by Professor Teare’s attempt to dissuade them in their medical opinion, was next in the stand. Despite his annoyance with the London expert trying to pull rank, the American, especially out of concern for the young family left behind by Lee, tempered his testimony. He testified that he initially believed the May 10th collapse was because of drug consumption but it “may or may not have been drug intoxication”.
Dr. Peter Wu, however, didn’t change his opinion on instructions from anyone, whether the expert had been flown in from London or Mars. He deposed, emphatically, that in his opinion Bruce Lee died because of a cerebral edema caused by cannabis poisoning. Tisdall, in cross-examination, demanded to know if Dr. Wu had any expertise to suggest that hypersensitivity to cannabis was a potential killer by itself and what the academic sources for his opinion were. Dr. Wu demurred that his knowledge was based on some pharmacological textbooks from his student days. Then, he conceded: “I am not in the position as an expert to talk about cannabis”.
No representative from the other side chose to continue the examination, not even the insurance lawyers. Dr. Wu, though had done his job, and the jury had heard a contrasting viewpoint. However, Tisdall’s cross-examination meant that the jurors had also seen that the Dr. Wu’s knowledge about cannabis was held without much proper scientific evidence or expertise.
After the lunch break, Dr. Lycette, who had conducted the autopsy took the stand. He deposed that there were no injuries or needle marks, absolutely nothing out of the ordinary to cause the death of a young man. The only abnormality was the swelling of the brain. He admitted that he had initially considered cannabis as a candidate for causing the edema. However, after he had learned that there were no authenticated cases of deaths from cannabis, he ruled out this hypothesis. The most likely substance, Dr. Lycette now believed, was one of the components of Equagesic.
It was on day six of the inquest that Professor Teare took the stand. Presenting his credentials, he stated that he had performed 90,000 post-mortems and deposed in 18,000 inquests over 35 years. Matthew Polly expresses incredulity at these numbers in his book. He cannot believe that Professor Teare had done 7 autopsies and deposed at 1.5 inquests as if he had worked 7 days a week for 365 days for 35 years. However, Teare provides the mechanism behind these statistics in his paper on the Scotland Yard autopsy: about 35% of deaths in London are reported to the coroner and 80% of all persons dying in hospitals come to autopsy on “what might be described as voluntary basis”. In coroner’s cases, the family’s attorney and funeral directors have no say on the procedure. In London, writes Professor Teare: “we have plenty of material on which to perfect autopsy techniques, to educate our students, and to obtain materials for homografts”. It was not as if he prepared, weighed and dissected every organ himself. Rather, he had teams of medical students to assist him.
In his deposition, Teare dismissed cannabis as a cause of death. The presence of the drug in Lee’s system was a coincidence. Leaving the gallery breathless with disbelief, Professor stated his opinion emphatically:
“As far as acute cerebral edema is concerned taking cannabis or taking a cup of tea or coffee would be identical.”
Elaborating his thesis, Professor Teare continued that the cause of the acute edema was either was either meprobamate or aspirin, or both in combination. According to him, that kind of allergic reaction was “very rare indeed”.
With that day’s deposition, the witness testimonies were concluded for the inquest. Judge Tung made a special mention of thanking Professor Teare for travelling from so far away. Proceedings were adjourned to the following Monday for the jury to deliberate.
However, this seventh and final day of the inquest was almost a formality.
The proceedings opened with Judge Tung briefing the three-man jury with the options for their finding. They had six: Murder, Manslaughter, Justifiable Homicide, Suicide, Death by Natural Causes, or Accidental Death. In the final category of accidental death, Tung informed the jury that there was a thin line in the legal understanding between “death by misadventure” and “death by disaster”. However, in his view, “death by misadventure” involved a greater degree of bad luck.
It took the jury all of five minutes to return their verdict. They held Bruce Lee had suffered a “Death by Misadventure”. For legal purposes, the death was to be treated as caused by bad luck, an accident rather than his own fault. The most likely cause of his death was the Equagesic pill, not cannabis. Judge Tung accepted the verdict, and at a 11.15am on September 24th, 1973, declared that the inquest into the death of Bruce Lee was officially concluded.
It took about three years of legal notices, negotiations and lawsuits for the insurance matters to be settled. Adrian Marshall, the lawyer representing Bruce Lee’s estate on behalf of Linda Lee, settled with AIA for half the policy’s face value. The insurer wrote a check to the estate for US$100,000. Lloyds of London eventually only paid US$129,000 — a mere pittance of the policy’s million-dollar face value.
Carter Wallace’s glossy magazine advertisements followed different strategies when marketing meprobamate to men and women. While Miltown was offered generally as a solution for when “reassurance is not enough”, men were told that Miltown would help them when the fear of being replaced by computers and the process of competing with machines meant that their emotions would “become folded, spindled and mutilated”. Women, alternatively, were told that it was unrealistic to “grant that she is socially, politically and culturally equal, while continuing to demand domestic and biological subservience”.
These advertisements carry a prominent warning:
“Contraindications: Previous allergic or idiosyncratic reactions to meprobamate.”
The specificity of the advice suggests that meprobamate’s unpredictable allergic reactions in certain cases was known to its manufacturers. Whether Frank Berger or others at Carter Wallace knew of the scale of these reactions or it was within their appetite for acceptable mortality through side-effects is difficult to establish.
In 2011, the serious side-effects of meprobamate finally triggered an investigation in France. The French medicine regulatory authority announced its intention to suspend the marketing authorisation for meprobamate of out concern about its serious side-effects. Mounting evidence suggested that meprobamate was not just highly addictive, and caused severe withdrawal symptoms, but also led to death and comas. The allergic reaction Lee had suffered wasn’t that rare.
Under Article 107 of Directive 2001/83/EC, France referred the compound for further investigation to the European Medical Agency. Proceeding on the basis of this referral, the agency’s Committee for Medicinal Products for Human Use (CHMP) eventually concluded that: “the benefits of meprobamate do not outweigh its risks, and that all marketing authorisations for oral medicines containing meprobamate should be suspended throughout the European Union (EU).” At the time, the EMA was headquartered in London, and the protection covered the United Kingdom. The suspension was to be implemented gradually to avoid the risk of severe withdrawal symptoms in patients from stopping treatment abruptly. Meprobamate was finally banned in 2012 by the European Union — a gap of almost four decades from the date of Bruce Lee’s death. In 2013, Canada followed the EU, and withdrew authorisation. The drug remains legal, however, in other parts of the world. The use of meprobamate is so historically normalised and wide-spread in medical literature, that general practitioners in several jurisdictions around the world continue to remain unaware of its potential for deadly side-effects.
The true cause of Bruce Lee’s death, at least according to his biographers, remains a subject of fertile speculation. Albert Goldman believed, like Dr. Wu continues to believe, that the unpredictable dosage of hashish can, indeed, kill. Tom Bleecker, Linda Lee’s second husband, offers several alternate and contradictory theories, from steroid abuse to a mafia hit using Chinese poisons unknown to Western medical science, in his book, Unsettled Matters. Matthew Polly is the latest biographer to offer a novel thesis about what could have killed Bruce Lee. According to Polly, it was an operation to remove Lee’s armpit sweat-glands that caused Lee to die of a heatstroke on a hot, humid day. It is evident that these self-proclaimed experts have not done basic research about the dangers of meprobamate.
A febrile atmosphere exists around substances that modify human consciousness. The moral activism of tabloid and celebrity journalism have created a fog of confusion and alternate facts that make it impossible to have a rational conversation about drugs. While politicians bow to this pressure and twiddle their thumbs, thousands of people die needlessly because addiction is treated as a crime rather than a social health issue. This provides perfect cover for pharmaceutical corporations that seek to market the next “miracle cure” for mental health issues, like depression or anxiety, and log supernormal profits without due diligence about harmful side-effects.
Instead of holding these corporations to account, it becomes easier for us to blame an imaginary reckless and immoral sex, drugs, and rock n’roll celebrity lifestyle. We continue to refuse to believe that Bruce Lee’s death was part of a hidden epidemic caused by a defective pharmaceutical product that should never have been allowed to be marketed en masse to the public.
The matter continues to be re-litigated in the court of public opinion, especially the chat threads of the internet.