Scientist took own life over fear about error

A gifted Oxfordshire scientist killed himself after panicking he could be jailed over a mistake he made while working on a project about radiation exposure at a former USSR nuclear weapons site.

Dad-of-two Matthew Puncher stabbed himself at his home in Crabtree Lane, Drayton on May 4.

At an inquest on Wednesday last week, Oxfordshire’s assistant coroner Nicholas Graham recorded a verdict of suicide.

Mr Puncher, a senior Public Health England scientist working at Harwell Science and Innovation Centre, had been worrying about a maths coding error he made.

The 46-year-old was working on a project for the American government investigating health risks to workers from exposure to Plutonium at the former USSR nuclear weapons production site called Mayak Production Association.

The code was used in testing on people with radiation.

A statement from his mother Janet Puncher revealed: “I asked him, ‘could someone die?’ But he said ‘no’.”

She said he had often been funny and outgoing but became withdrawn and quiet. Home Office pathologist Nicholas Hunt said Mr Puncher had been suffering from depression because of work pressures and tried to hang himself the week before his death.

His wife of 16 years, Kathryn Puncher, said in a statement that the night before Mr Puncher died he had promised her he would not try to do it again.

She said: “He was a fantastic husband and a great father to our two children. He was a kind and caring person.”

She continued: “He was brilliant with the children and, due to being a highly intelligent man, enjoyed helping them with their homework.”

A statement by his colleague George Etherington said it was during a meeting when he went to Russia in February 2016 that the mistake in his maths analysis came to light.

Mr Etherington said Mr Puncher feared he might lose his job and be sent to prison over the slip-up.

He added: “He said he would work all day and not know what he had done by the end of the day.

“I told him his fears were groundless and that he would not lose his job or go to prison.”

The court heard that during 2014 and 2015 there had been redundancies at Public Health England and that Mr Puncher had been struggling to keep up with the workload.

A statement by his supervisor Timothy Gant said: “He told me he thought he would be better stacking shelves in B&Q.”

Detective Constable Rachel Carter, of Thames Valley Police CID at Abingdon Police Station, told the inquest the case was ‘unusual’.

She said: “His injuries seemed so extensive that it initially caused me some unease.

“At first I didn’t know how he could inflict all those wounds on himself without losing consciousness before.”

But Det Con Carter added that after investigating she was satisfied that there were no suspicious circumstances around Mr Puncher’s death.