In Beyond the Tape, former state pathologist Dr Marie Cassidy invites us into the world of forensic pathology, and shares her remarkable personal journey…[restrict]
I had known Jack for many years and he had often regaled us with tales of his time as state pathologist. On one occasion he had visited Glasgow as external examiner for the forensic medicine examination for medical students. He got his flight times wrong and a car sent to pick him up came back empty. Later, when he arrived at Glasgow airport, there was no welcoming party, so, naturally, he went up to a policeman and asked him to take him to Professor Vanesis’s office. The policeman had no idea who Jack or Vanesis were, but agreed to contact his senior officer. Eventually they worked out that Jack was trying to find the forensic medicine department and so they called us. Jack arrived full of bonhomie, amazed that no one in Glasgow, a slight exaggeration, knew who the professor of forensic medicine was. ‘Sure, everyone in Ireland knows me.’ Of course they do, Jack!
Fast forward a few years. Post the high-profile Sophie Toscan du Plantier murder in west Cork, 1996, the realisation came that one forensic pathologist could not be expected to investigate every suspicious death in the entire country: Jack contacted me to see if I would be interested in joining him in Ireland. I said I would think about it and offered to pop over to get an idea of the situation. I arrived at Dublin airport, no sign of Jack. Tit for tat! A call came over the Tannoy: ‘Will Dr Cassidy come to the information desk.’ Expecting to hear Jack was running late, I was surprised to find two gardaí who told me Professor Harbison was at a scene and had requested that I be brought there.
I was bundled into the back of the garda car and we sped off through Dublin to Grangegorman, where two women lay dead. Before I knew it I was having conversations with the forensic scientists about bloody fingerprints: which was more important – DNA analysis or identifying the fingerprint? That was an ongoing discussion in Glasgow too. This was a horrendous double murder and little did I realise that it would not be solved for many years. My visit sealed the deal: Ireland it was to be. It also confirmed that everyone knew who Jack was.
So, the second phase of my career was in Ireland in the Office of the State Pathologist. Same job but different in many ways.
The Irish are obsessed with death. Attending funerals is a national sport, while in Scotland one has to have a legitimate link to the deceased: only family and close friends get to partake in the steak pie breakfast, the highlight of the event. In Ireland there are death notices announced on local radio and, rather than check your horoscope or do the crossword, people check the paper to see if anyone within a ten-mile radius has died, as that seems to be a legitimate enough reason to attend a funeral, others being, ‘I knew his cousin’, or ‘My granny lived round the corner’. I remember when my own mother died we knew everyone in the church apart from one person, a representative from the Department of Justice. Nice thought but totally unnecessary at a Scottish funeral. He didn’t stay for the steak pie. But thank you, Noel.
This fascination with death translates into press coverage of deaths, not just murders, which was why Jack was such a public figure. While he relished his ‘fame’, I have always felt uneasy at the intrusion. Try shopping in the local supermarket, which I know Jack never did, and people coming over to chat, which is lovely, but I know they’re checking out the contents of my trolley. It’s almost enough to make you teetotal. But not quite.
For the next twenty years I devoted my time and energy to investigating suspicious deaths in Ireland. During this time forensic science progressed and the role of the pathologist changed. The attendance of the forensic pathologist at the scene of a death became largely redundant from the investigators’ point of view, but I never refused to go. Advances in trauma care, and an upgraded road system which led to an improvement in paramedics’ response times, meant the severely injured were rapidly transported to hospital and resuscitated successfully, and the ‘simple’ cases – the single stab wound and some head injuries – never got to us, and so the cases we dealt with became more complex. Despite that, the process has remained the same over the years and, while mortuaries have been upgraded, the pathologist still relies on a sharp knife, a pair of scissors and a saw, electric preferred.
It wasn’t always thus. The rapid changes in the forensic investigation of deaths in my lifetime mirror the advances in science and technology which affect all our lives. But, as with all aspects of modern living, the reality is that the evolution of the process of investigation of deaths took centuries.
Beyond The Tape by
Dr Marie Cassidy is
published in Trade