Forensic pathologists are ordered by coroners to investigate the cause
of sudden and unexpected deaths. A sudden and unexpected death may occur in
a hospital, at home, in police custody or in a prison. The death may be a
murder, suicide or accident, or it may be due to natural causes.
Forensic pathologists perform post-mortems (autopsies) to determine the
cause of death. By studying tissue and laboratory results, they're usually
able to determine how a person died and give evidence in court about the cause
and time of death.
The forensic pathologist's investigation includes visiting the scene of
the death, gathering information about what happened at the time and place
of the subject's death, what they were doing and what their health was like.
The forensic examination of a body includes examining clothing, the body
itself and the internal organs during an autopsy. The autopsy may include
microscopic and X-ray examinations of the tissues of the body.
Forensic pathologists work with assistants, police photographers, toxicologists
and forensic dentists. Together with other experts, pathologists collect evidence
from the body, such as blood, stomach contents, bile, organs, brains, nail
clippings, hair and urine, to help in their investigation.
In some states, coroners are required to be forensic pathologists. In other
areas, this isn't the case.
Some forensic pathologists only work on a part-time basis, so they may
work as general pathologists the rest of the time.
Dr. David King, a forensic pathologist, works irregular hours. He is on
call -- meaning he can be called in to the hospital at any time -- for part
of each week and on weekends. His schedule reflects the fact that sometimes
police are anxious to have an autopsy done, especially if they have no leads
in the case and an autopsy could help to move the case along.
Most of the work a forensic pathologist does takes place in a clean, well-lit
laboratory, although they visit various places to examine the scene of the
death. These professionals can also expect to spend time testifying in court
and doing routine paperwork.
Depending on where they live, forensic pathologists may work for the government,
or for hospitals or other health-care units.
Some of the work can involve decomposing or mutilated bodies, so forensic
pathologists need to have strong stomachs. Much of their work can be unpleasant
and even disturbing, so it's not a job for the squeamish.