Tales of an African forensic pathologist

Believe it or not, there are only about 40 registered forensic pathologists in South Africa, each of which perform from hundreds of autopsies a year.


Senior State Pathologist, Dr Ryan Blumenthal, shared this as part of an insightful talk at Scifest Africa in Grahamstown at the weekend.


According to Dr Blumenthal, there are approximately 70 000 unnatural deaths a year in South Africa. Of these, 25 000 are homicides, up to 15 000 are road traffic accidents, and about 10 000 are suicides.


He encouraged aspiring young scientists who attended his presentation to think about joining his profession.


Dr Blumenthal himself performs 250 to 450 autopsies per year. He explained that forensic pathology is the branch of medicine that applies the principles and knowledge of the medical sciences to problems in the field of law.


"A forensic pathologist gets to know chemistry, the law, medicine, psychology, engineering and so much more as they unpack the causes of death," he said.


The work involves, among other things, determining the cause and manner of a death, identifying the bodies of unknown people, collecting evidence from bodies, documenting injuries or the lack of injuries, deducing how the injuries occurred, excluding natural causes of death and providing expert testimony.


"There is nothing more thrilling to me than catching a murderer," Dr Blumethal said, smiling.


Having entered the profession in the cause of justice, he found it unfortunate that some deaths were given a high profile and others were not.


"Are we not equal in death?" he asked. "Certainly for me, we are. I do the autopsy of a poor, homeless street person in exactly the same way I would carry out an autopsy for a famous person. The medico-legal autopsy is exactly the same."


Dr Blumenthal told his audience that, in other countries, forensic pathologists were increasingly making use of new technology such as drones, new facial recognition software, and laboratories on a chip, as well as using cellphones to uncover how people committed murder.


Scifest Africa has been held annually by the Grahamstown Foundation since 1996, and receives funding from the Department of Science and Technology. The theme for this year's festival is Innovation 4.0.


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