The Mysterious Murder of a Heroic Chemist Who Was (Probably) Also a Spy

Illustration for article titled The Mysterious Murder of a Heroic Chemist Who Was (Probably) Also a Spy

In 1952, a vacationing British family of three was brutally shot and clubbed to death while camping roadside near the village of Lurs, on the banks of the Durance. The murders, for which a local farmer was convicted (but spared the guillotine), became known as “France’s crime of the century.” And its mysteries still intrigue.


The guilt of Gaston Dominici—whose son Gustave Dominici discovered the bodies of Sir Jack Drummond, his wife Anne, and 10-year-old Elizabeth—has been debated over the years. That kind of nagging doubt is not unusual for such a high-profile case, especially one with so many inconsistencies, as an article published to mark the crime’s 50-year anniversary in the Guardian noted:

What was Dominici’s motive? Where did the murder weapon, a battered US army Rock-Ola carbine, come from? What of the unidentified men seen on the road? And was Sir Jack, as Fleet Street soon began claiming, rather more than just an eminent scientist?

That last question in particular has inspired conspiracy theories galore over the years. Because who, exactly, was Sir Jack Drummond? On paper, he was a prominent, distinguished scientist whom the BBC referred to as “the nation’s top food chemist,” and who’d played an important role in World War II:

He researched and defined vitamins as we know them today and during the war, he was the man responsible for rationing based on a scientific diet he had developed.

He was knighted for his wartime work and could be considered the Jamie Oliver of his day for encouraging healthy eating.

The Guardian elaborates (in an article with the macabre title “A menu for murder”), pointing out that his contributions made him a “genuine home-front hero:”

In February 1940, Drummond had been appointed chief scientific adviser to the Ministry of Food, where he did more than perhaps any other single individual to ensure that island Britain survived the Nazi U-boat blockade without starving. In fact the health of the British nation, schoolchildren included, was not just maintained during the second world war but improved. The American Public Health Association reported that “the rates of infantile, neonatal and maternal mortality and stillbirths all reached the lowest levels in the history of the country. The incidence of anaemia and dental caries declined, the rate of growth of schoolchildren improved, progress was made in the control of tuberculosis, and the general state of nutrition of the population as a whole was up to or an improvement upon pre-war standards.” Indeed, the incidence of almost every diet-related illness was lower than it had ever been.

Illustration for article titled The Mysterious Murder of a Heroic Chemist Who Was (Probably) Also a Spy

After the war, he left the government and took at job in the research department at UK pharmacy company Boots, which at the time was a prominent force in the agrochemicals industry. It was a career move that surprised many of his colleagues. But his murder was far more shocking, and it led to speculation that “l’affaire Dominici” may have been some kind of hired-assassin situation, with a convenient fall guy who happened to live in a farmhouse near where the Drummond family bodies were discovered. The main evidence against Dominici was a booze-fueled confession, which he later recanted.


As the Mirror recalls, the Dominicis were thought to be the only witnesses to the murders, and that was by way of overhearing shots fired in the night. They weren’t alarmed by the sounds, because they figured it was the gun of a poacher who happened to be prowling in the area.

Beyond that, it gets confusing, with conflicting stories over whether or not the Dominicis had met the Drummonds prior to that fatal night, and whether or not Elizabeth was still alive when Gustave discovered the grim crime scene. But mostly, there was this:

Gustave and his brother Clovis claimed they heard their father said he admitted having “killed the English.”

Gaston went on to make an apparently drunken confession but he later withdrew it. Gustave took back his claims too.


Gaston was 75 years old and walked with a cane. And he had no motive to commit any crime, much less shooting two strangers in the back and beating a 10-year-old to death. Though he was convicted, doubt about his guilt lingered; his death sentence was soon commuted to life, and he was freed in 1960, by then well into his 80s, “on health grounds.” He died in 1965, proclaiming his innocence to the end.

Ok, so whodunnit, if Gaston Dominici didn’t? Potential scenarios abound; most seem to agree that the roadside campout may have not been chosen at random, but rather as a meeting point for some kind of secret rendezvous, with the family vacation serving as a cover.


History buff and l’affair Dominici expert Raymond Badin expanded on this idea to the Guardian: “I think the family was a pawn among others, caught up unwittingly on the chess board of a secret battle fought between east and west over each bloc’s leading scientists. Jack Drummond, we are almost certain, was a spy.” What’s more:

Mr Badin discovered that [Drummond] had been to Lurs at least three times before, in 1947, 1948 and 1951. Six miles from the village is a chemicals factory that had begun producing advanced crop insecticides, widely feared during the cold war for their military potential. Was he on an espionage mission? His camera, certainly, was never found.


Important point, that: just up the road from where the Drummonds were killed was a chlorine plant run by Rhône-Poulenc. Who, you ask? The Mirror story, which also quotes Badin, explains:

One report by a senior French police officer ­gave the opinion it was “an ­episode in the ­secret struggle ­between pharmaceutical ­corporations”.

Sir Jack worked for Rhône-Poulenc’s British rival Boots, who at the time were at the forefront in the ­development of fertilisers and weedkillers.

Chemicals produced could also have a military use – devastatingly in the case of Agent Orange in Asia.


But as the BBC reports, Dominici’s grandson is loyal to the idea that the KGB did it:

[Alain Dominici] believes the theory that Sir Jack had been a member of the Special Operations Executive during the war and was assassinated by a Soviet agent.

“Let’s say the authorities already knew it was a state affair and a military affair,” said Alain.


And author James Fergusson, whose book on British eating habits was excerpted in the Guardian, agrees that while the industrial-espionage theory holds weight, the “Drummond was a government agent” might be even more on target:

Was intelligence-gathering the reason for Drummond’s presence in the Basses-Alpes in 1952? Boots would doubtless have been interested in the goings-on at the chlorine plant, yet I couldn’t quite believe that Drummond - altruistic, patriotic, a distinguished senior scientist - would involve himself in something as tawdry as a bid for commercial advantage. If he truly was gathering intelligence, it seemed likelier to me that he would have been doing so on behalf of his country. In other words, he was probably working for MI6.

That, it also seemed to me, was the probable explanation for Drummond’s appointment to the board of Boots in 1946. MI6 has a long tradition of “placing” its operatives within British industry. Whatever his rendezvous had been for, it was evidently important enough for him to wait up half the night at the side of a road. If he was operating under cover of a family holiday, he either tragically underestimated the danger of the meeting he had planned, or else he and his family were the unlucky victims of violence unconnected with his work.


Oh, and if this all sounds like an obvious candidate for a mystery film, it’s been done, in 1973’s L’affaire Dominici, starring French great Jean Gabin as the titular farmer. Orson Welles also became fascinated with the case and made a documentary about it for British television.

Illustration for article titled The Mysterious Murder of a Heroic Chemist Who Was (Probably) Also a Spy

From top: French police at the scene of the murders of British biochemist Sir Jack Drummond and his family on a road near the village of Lurs, August 6th, 1952 (photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images); front page article in the Evening Standard covering a development in the investigation (photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images); crime scene image labeled with the spots where each of the three bodies was found (photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)