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The City Analyst’s Lab: Vancouver’s History as a Forensic Pioneer

Updated: Jul 7, 2020

The entrance to 238 East Cordova Street, which served as the City Analyst’s Laboratory from 1932 to 1996. Photo VPMA photo collection P04708.

Written by Matteo Miceli

As visitors to the Vancouver Police Museum peruse the artefacts on display or read about unsolved murders, they stand, many unknowingly, above an 86 year old time capsule.

Just one floor below the museum lies the abandoned City Analyst Laboratory. Antiquated chromatographs and centrifuges can be found tucked away in cabinets; glass beakers, tubes and flasks line the shelves; and microscopes, of all shapes and sizes, sit on a table, where they have remained unused for over twenty years.

The lab today. Maintained by the Police Museum and used primarily for the storage of archival material and artefacts.

While it doesn’t look like much today, 238 East Cordova Street was once a busy laboratory, responsible for helping the Vancouver Police solve countless crimes. During its sixty-four-year run, the lab was involved in the investigation of some of Vancouver’s most notorious murders, including the Pauls Family murder, the poisoning of Esther Castellani and the Stanley Park Babes in the Wood case. The lab garnered international renown for its state-of-the-art equipment and methods, putting the young city of Vancouver on the global forensic map. But the building has a humble origins story; and exists because of one man, John F.C.B. Vance, and his work.

In 1914, Vance was contacted by the Vancouver Police to aid in the investigation of Clara Millard, who had gone missing days before. At the time, Vance worked as an Analyst for the City’s Health Department, where he tested and ensured the safety of Vancouver’s water supply and various food products. Vance took samples from the Millards’ home back to his lab and confirmed the presence of blood at the scene. This evidence would eventually lead to the arrest and manslaughter conviction of the houseboy who lived with the Millards.

Vance in his original crime lab, located on the top floor of the Vancouver Police Department. Photo: VPMA photo collection P07358.

After the Millard case, the Vancouver Police recognized the value science could have in police investigations and they continued to consult Vance. From murders to robberies, Vance aided in many investigations, forging a solid relationship with the Vancouver Police. While juggling his job as City Analyst and work with the police, Vance became an expert in serology, toxicology and trace material evidence. He even went so far as to invent his own forensic tools, including a portable ultraviolet lamp that could detect the presence of bodily fluids. Because of his diverse expertise and ability to adapt, Vance became internationally known as ‘Canada’s Sherlock Holmes.’

But as demand for his services increased, it became apparent that Vance’s lab on the top floor of the Police Station was too small and outdated to accommodate the growing needs of the City. Vance asked for more space, and in 1932, his wish came true. Next door to the Police Station, 238 East Cordova was built to include Vance’s dream crime lab. It had ample space and the latest equipment. The upstairs—240 East Cordova—was designated to the coroner’s services, housing the morgue and coroner’s courtroom. For a time, all the institutions involved in an investigation, the Police, Coroners and Analysts, were all within a short walk of one another, resulting in an unprecedented (and unreplicated) level of inter-agency cooperation and communication.

Vance working in his new lab at 238 East Cordova. Photo: The Toronto Star December 22nd, 1934.

At the time of its construction, the Analyst Lab was one of the most advanced forensic facilities in North America, even rivalling the FBI Crime Lab, which opened that same year. In this new space, Vance would continue to help solve some of British Columbia’s most infamous crimes, until he retired in 1949, ending a long and very successful career. Vance’s legacy persisted through the hard work of future analysts like George Fennel and Inspector Percy Easler. For the next nearly five decades, the Analyst Lab underwent only minor renovations, the general layout staying true to Vance’s original designs. In a time when white men dominated the field of science, the Analyst Lab was diverse and inclusive, hiring women and people from different ethnic backgrounds.

Inspector Percy Easler developing a fingerprint enlargement (1960s). Photo: VMPA photo collection P00048.

With the emergence of a new kind of forensic practice in the mid 1980s, DNA profiling, the lab was quickly becoming obsolete. As DNA evidence grew more and more integral to criminal investigations, the city faced a dilemma: spend a large sum of money updating the lab to include DNA equipment or outsource to labs already equipped to handle DNA evidence. In the end, the updates would prove to be too expensive and in 1996 the lab was shut down. The Vancouver Police now outsources its forensic needs to the RCMP and private laboratories.

The lab shortly before it was shut down in 1996. Photo: VPMA photo collection P08013.

Since the Analysts moved out in 1996, the Vancouver Police Museum has moved in, keeping most of the lab the way it was left, in hopes of one day opening it up to the public. The back Analyst’s Office now houses the Museum’s archival collection, consisting of massive tomes of criminal records, police records and thousands of photos. The Museum has since expanded its scope to include not only the history of policing in Vancouver, but also the history of the scientists who worked out of this historic building.

The City Analyst’s Office, used today to house the Vancouver Police Museum’s archival collection.

To learn more about Inspector John F.C.B. Vance, check out ‘Blood, Sweat, and Fear: the story of Inspector Vance Vancouver’s first forensic investigator’ by Eve Lazarus—on sale at the museum or online. And to learn more about the crimes investigated by the lab, come visit the museum’s True Crime Exhibit!


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