Forensic Pathologist  What They Do

Just the Facts

Insider Info

dotForensic 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.

dotThe 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.

dotForensic 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.

dotIn some states, coroners are required to be forensic pathologists. In other areas, this isn't the case.

dotSome forensic pathologists only work on a part-time basis, so they may work as general pathologists the rest of the time.

dotDr. 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.

dotMost 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.

dotDepending on where they live, forensic pathologists may work for the government, or for hospitals or other health-care units.

dotSome 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.

At a Glance

Investigate the cause of unexpected or unexplained deaths

  • Expect to spend time testifying in court
  • You'll work with assistants, police photographers, toxicologists and forensic dentists
  • Get a medical degree followed by a specialty in pathology and a subspecialty in forensics