Pathology is the study of disease and its causes. Forensic pathology involves discovering the cause of death, especially in cases where it is sudden or the police suspect that it has not occurred by natural causes. A forensic pathologist is a medical doctor trained in pathology.
Forensic pathology dates back to the 16th century in Europe.
he first stage is to conduct a post-mortem (also known as an ‘autopsy’). This involves first examining the body and looking at its external appearance to help identification and to begin to determine how the person died – for example looking for evidence of blows, looking at the size, shape and location of wounds such as stab wounds or bullet entry points, or looking for signs of asphyxia.
The pathologist will then begin surgical procedures and study the internal organs to see how external injuries connect to internal injuries, for example bruising of the brain following a head injury, or damage to the heart and blood vessels following a stabbing or shooting, and look for evidence of disease as a cause of death, for example heart attack, stroke, aneurysm or infection.
The stomach contents may provide clues to the time circumstances or cause of death. The forensic pathologist will also look for microscopic changes in the tissues to support these observations.
The autopsy may also include taking samples that may lead to conviction of a murderer or rapist including taking samples from under fingernails, or samples of semen from vaginal swabs.
The pathologist will need to take precautions to protect him or herself and other staff if the victim died of (or with) an infectious disease such as HIV.
The circumstances or state in which the victim was fund can cause problems for the pathologist – for example if the body was found in water, or in a significant state of decomposition.