University changes safety rules after “tragic” cyanide death of transgender researcher

The University is modifying "already robust" processes after an inquest into the death of a researcher in January

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An “outstanding” Oxford University researcher poisoned herself with cyanide after telling friends and family she was transgender, an inquest heard on Wednesday.

Despite apparently being happy with her transition from a man to a woman, Oxford Coroner’s Court heard that firemen forced their way into Erin Shepherd’s flat on 20 January to discover the 27-year-old near a container of white powder, now known to contain cyanide.

She had recently started as a paid academic in the University’s Chemistry Department, and completed her DPhil in Chemistry at Corpus Christi College.

Detective Sergeant Kevin Parsons said Shepherd had likely obtained the cyanide after accessing the University labs at 6am two hours before she died. University regulations allow access to potentially hazardous chemicals for scientists with formal training.

Cherwell understands that the University’s Chemistry Department has since reviewed its procedures for hazardous materials. A University spokesperson said the Department is “currently introducing some modifications to an already robust process”.

He added: “All scientists are trained thoroughly in the use of hazardous materials and the Department has re-emphasised this to all chemists. As well as this review, all three sections of the Department of Chemistry meet termly to consider and review safety matters. The Department’s Management Board also holds a termly meeting dedicated to safety matters, at which there is an opportunity to review safety procedures when necessary.

“We would also stress that Erin’s actions presented no risk to the public at large. The University’s deepest sympathies are with her friends, family and colleagues over her tragic death.”

Speaking at the inquest, Detective Parsons added: “She had struggled with her gender identity for most of her life. She was doing well and showing no signs of unhappiness.”
She had changed her name and was taking speech therapy to adopt a new identity.

Tributes have also been paid to Miss Shepherd by those who knew her. Speaking to Cherwell, one of Shepherd’s housemates said that during the two and a half years he knew her, “she became Erin Shepherd”.

The housemate explained that there “was no reaction at all” from Shepherd’s flatmates to her transition, and said “she was a very, very good tenant”. He said he had seen a suicide note sent by Shepherd in an email, and described his housemate as “quiet, sharp and switched on”.

Police were called to Miss Shepherd’s home on Magdalen Road in East Oxford by her sister after she received the email, entitled “I am so sorry”.

The court heard that she phoned her sister to urge her to flush the cyanide down the toilet, but was unable to change her mind.

On the day of Erin’s death in January, there was reportedly “havoc” on Magdalen Road, with the emergency services closing the area off to the public.

Her housemate said that he believed that Shepherd was “winding down” before ending her life, after she disposed of her collection of Olympic coins, in which she had a keen interest.

Darren Salter, Oxfordshire Coroner, described her suicide as a “tragic case’” at the inquest, adding: “This was a great shock. Those closest to her did not foresee this.

“Things seemed to be going in the right direction. Very sadly, something caused her to decide to take her own life.”

Salter also read evidence from Shepherd’s doctor, Richard Baskerville, who said that she registered with him in 2015.

“She had recently come out as transgender. She had an extensive circle of friends and was pleased with her progress in transitioning. Her death was a sudden and tragic event.”

Salter concluded Shepherd died of suicide.

Professor Mark Brouard, Head of the Chemistry Department, and Professor Steve Cowley, President of Corpus Christi, released a joint statement in February. They paid homage to the “outstanding” work of Miss Shepherd, who had a “highly promising career” in academia.

She was awarded a Lilly Prize by the Department of Organic Chemistry in 2012, which is awarded to a select number of graduate chemists for their performance in the first year of their DPhil.

Shepherd’s death has raised concerns over the policies in place to prevent transgender suicide in higher education.

In a statement to Cherwell, Jennifer Sheppard, the Oxford University LGBTQ+ Society Transgender Rep, highlighted the prevalence of mental health issues in the transgender community at Oxford University.

“We were incredibly saddened to hear of the suicide of a student and researcher at Oxford,” she said. “Transgender people are at an increased risk of mental health problems and suicide due to the lack of support networks available and the possibly unsafe surroundings they often find themselves in.

“A welfare report recently published by OUSU has stated that LGBTQ+ students were significantly more likely to feel overwhelmed by their time at the University and that 83 per cent of trans students said that the University of Oxford had had a negative effect on their mental health. Sadly, in the wider context of increasing deaths of transgender people, this tragedy is not out of place.

“Our thoughts are with Erin Shepherd’s friends and family during this difficult time. The OU LGBTQ+ society provides support to those who need it.”

Tara Stone, Managing Director of Be Trans Support and Development Network North, told Cherwell that despite progress in the past five years, “there is still a long way to go” to deal with issues of transgender suicide.

She pointed to a 2012 report by the Scottish Trans-Gender Alliance, which found that 84 per cent of transgender adults thought about ending their lives, while 35 per cent had attempted suicide and 25 per cent had attempted it more than once.

Stone said it is “really important for higher education institutions to ensure policies are up to date” and that they are “working with trans-students and academics.”

She called for a “whole organisation approach, recognising that all people have a responsibility” to create a welcoming environment for transgender people.

OUSU VP for Women and Equality, Orla White, said: “We extend our sincerest sympathies to Erin’s loved ones, to her colleagues and to everyone who might be affected by this news.

“If anyone is in need of support, we recommend contacting Switchboard (0300 330 0630) to discuss LGBTQ issues, or the Samaritans (116 123) to talk about depression and suicide.

“We know that trans women are often failed by mental health services, which is only compounded by day-to-day experiences of transmisogyny.

“In light of this tragedy, OUSU would like to reaffirm our commitment to fighting for the dignity and rights of trans people.”

If you have been affected by this story, you may find these resources useful:
Counselling Servicehttps://www.ox.ac.uk/students/welfare/counselling – 01865 270300 – counselling@admin.ox.ac.uk
Nightlinehttp://oxfordnightline.org – 8pm to 8am in term time at 01865 270 270, or also online on skype and instant messenger
The Samaritanshttp://www.samaritans.org – 116123 or 01865 722122
Get in touch with your welfare team and peer supporters if you would like more resources.

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