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Forensic pathology - An expert opinion

Everyone who is addicted to murder thrillers with a forensic bent knows that pathologists can estimate the time of death by body temperature. Less well-known, however, is the fact that it is – at least in theory - possible to tell not only the time of death but also where the dead person lived by his/her bones. 

This is a service provided by very few centres in the UK, one of which is the University of Leicester - home to the biggest unit of Home Office forensic pathologists in the country... 


Forensic pathologists are a rare breed. Nationwide, there are only approximately 30 of them practising, so it is no wonder that they are likely to be on call 24 hours a day seven days a week. Even holidays are best taken in secret – just to ensure no unwanted calls filter through or the forensic pathologist has to go to court.
 
Dr Guy Rutty is Professor and Head of the Division of Forensic Pathology at the University of Leicester. He came to the University in August 2001 to join Dr Clive Bouch, an NHS Pathologist who is Head of the Forensic Pathology Service. Following Dr Rutty’s arrival the NHS and University forensic pathology operations merged, and the unit now includes three staff, four consultants and is hoping to appoint two trainees in the near future. 

The Leicester unit provides an autopsy service for suspicious deaths in the five counties of the East Midlands, and also assists the West Midlands Police, the Falkland Islands and the International Centre for Missing Persons (ICMP). Members of the unit are still working to assist in the investigation of mass graves in Bosnia and Serbia and the repatriation of bodies. 
 
They also carry out independent autopsies for coroners, work with solicitors and police when an expert opinion is required, and are principal advisors for the humanitarian forensic centre Inforce. 
 
The Unit’s fame is spreading. The National Crime Faculty – the British equivalent of the FBI - is due to pay them a fact-finding visit shortly, as is Swindon University. 
In court, forensic pathologists give evidence for both prosecution and defence and do not take sides. The perpetrator of a crime is of no relevance to the forensic pathologist. 
 
Being – at least in part – a University Department, the Unit is involved in a limited amount of undergraduate and postgraduate teaching - a role which it intends to develop - as well as training in forensic pathology for a number of overseas visitors. 
 
Research activities are often carried out in collaboration with other groups, and in addition to the investigations into estimation of time of death, Leicester forensic pathologists are researching the identification of bodies from ears and feet, examination of tool marks on bones, the identification of offenders and the contamination of living and dead by other peoples DNA. 

The Unit’s activities make a formidable list, so what is a typical week for a Leicester Forensic Pathologist? Not much like the glamorous television portrayals, according to Dr Rutty:
 
“I might begin on Monday morning at 8.30, depending on what police work I’m involved in. Often the only way I can get peace to write up my cases is to slip off home in the afternoons.
 
“Every day when I’m here I see all my students and talk through their projects. I feel very strongly that people undertaking project work shouldn’t be left alone. I also make a point of talking to my senior colleagues to find out what is going on throughout the group. 
 
“We can get called out at any time to a case anywhere in the East Midlands and we may not be back for days if one case runs into another. If we get too tired to drive safely from case to case the police take us. Since last Wednesday I haven’t been home before 10-11pm and that is in a week of supposedly light duties! Then we usually attend Coroners’ Courts or Crown Courts at least once each week, and provide expert advice to the police or to solicitors. We also try to write a paper each month. 
 
“Huge commitment is required and we try and maintain this. We often work till we drop. It doesn’t even stop at weekends. Whatever family life you have stops the instant the phone rings.” 

Nonetheless, Dr Rutty’s enthusiasm for his work shines through, and he laments the difficulties in recruiting more forensic pathologists. There is a ray of hope, however. The Government wants to double the numbers across the country from 25 to 50. If they succeed in meeting that target then perhaps 'working till they drop' will become a thing of the past. 

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Last updated: 21 March 2003 10:55
Maintained by: Barbara Whiteman

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