Pathology in Silent Witness Is All about Death -- in Reality, It's All about Life Too

Article excerpt

Byline: Sue Armstrong

Dr Bill Bass was crouching over a corpse in a leafy glade on the banks of the Tennessee River and pointing out to me tiny holes in the leathery skin that suggested this body was not as intact as it appeared superficially.

'Maggots do not like sunlight,' he explains. 'So if you have a body out there, the maggots will leave the skin as an umbrella and eat all of the interior organs.'

This was the Body Farm, made famous in the Scarpetta novels of crimewriter Patricia Cornwell, and I had gone to meet Bill Bass while researching my book, A Matter Of Life And Death.

One of the hardest things for forensic experts to get right, says Dr Bass, is the length of time a body has been dead. In 1971 he set up the Forensic Anthropological Research Facility, popularly known as the Body Farm, at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where he was professor. Here, human corpses are left to rot under different conditions, and all manner of studies are undertaken by scientists.

'There are about 150 bodies out here right now,' said Dr Bass, looking around us. 'There have been bodies put almost anywhere you can put a body.'

As we walked, he related anecdotes from his casebook, including the story of investigating the victims of the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly.

To my surprise, I did not find any of this ghoulish, undignified or lacking in respect for the dead. Though you could not escape the strangely sweet smell of death, there was a kind of peacefulness in that wooded patch beside the river where birds flitted among the trees.

But forensics is only a small part of my book, for my main purpose in writing it was to challenge the popular belief that this is what pathology is all about. In reality, only a small minority of pathologists are forensic specialists. The great majority are working behind the scenes in the health services with living patients. Pathologists are involved in 70 per cent of diagnoses in the NHS.

If you have blood taken by your GP, the chances are a pathologist will be the one to analyse it. If you have cancer, your oncologist will rely on a pathologist to determine exactly what type of tumour it is and to advise on treatment. And if a new disease such as AIDS, Ebola or SARS breaks out, it is pathologists who will be tasked with finding the cause.

They are vital members of the clinical team but because they have limited contact with patients, they are little known and much misunderstood. When the storm blew up over retained organs at Liverpool's Alder Hey and Bristol Children's Hospital in 1999, they were demonised by the media as 'doctors of death'. Paediatric pathologists were particularly vilified and some left the profession in despair.

In the aftermath of the scandal I set out to enquire for a radio programme what sort of people go into pathology and what they actually do. …