The results of an autopsy of Harvard structural biologist Don Wiley indicate that his death was an accident, Tennessee authorities said today. But it may have been precipitated by a combination of alcohol and a minor seizure disorder.
Wiley's body was found in the Mississippi River on 20 December some 480 kilometers south of Memphis, where he disappeared on 15 November after leaving a conference sponsored by St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. His rental car was found parked on the Hernando DeSoto Bridge with no hazard lights flashing and the key still in the ignition (Science, 4 January 2001, p. 31).
Shelby County Medical Examiner O. C. Smith has now ruled out both foul play and suicide. There was no indication from his patterns of injuries that Wiley had been assaulted, he said. And "an extensive review of Dr. Wiley's medical records and behavior are totally devoid of any prior suicidal thoughts or action."
Smith suggested instead that Wiley had gotten out of the car on the bridge to inspect minor damage on both sides of the front of the vehicle. There was yellow paint and rusty material, similar to that from bridge supports, on the driver's side, and a missing hubcap and scraped wheel rim on the passenger side. The damage suggests not one, but two "mishaps," reported Smith--and "may also be an indicator of some physical impairment." Smith reports that Wiley had for some years been affected by "an infrequent and poorly understood" seizure disorder that he kept private, but which could be triggered by stress, fatigue, or alcohol. Although The Boston Globe had reported that during the evening of his disappearance Wiley had switched from port to ginger ale, Smith said there was alcohol in the body "at levels suggesting impairment."
Smith postulates that Wiley could have lost his balance from physical impairment or from a gust of wind from a passing truck and been pitched over the guardrail, which only came up to mid-thigh. He died from the impact on the water, and did not drown, the report says.
Another factor that persuaded authorities the death was accidental: People who have jumped off that bridge in the past have successfully cleared a box beam that projects 1 meter out along the side of the bridge. But the fact that a shirt button was broken off suggests that Wiley hit the beam during his 35-meter fall.