Hazel McHaffie

forensic pathology

Unnatural Causes

Richard Shepherd was just 9 years old when his mother died. He was in his early teens when a friend – the son of a GP – smuggled one of his father’s medical textbooks into school to spook his pals. The book was Simpson’s Forensic Medicine – and the young Richard was mesmerised.

‘Even the most amateur psychologist must deduce that my need to explore death’s presentation was the reason for my extraordinary interest in that copy of Simpson’s Forensic Medicine. More than an interest, it was a fascination. It went further than prurience and much further than the other boys’ eagerness to be horrified.’

Richard fell in love with the way this great pathologist ‘rushed to crime scenes, often in those days by steam train, and then used his medical skills to help detectives reconstruct homicides, solve the unsolvable, exonerate the innocent, argue the case in court and bring to justice the perpetrator.’

But it wasn’t until 16 years after he first entered medical school that he finally became a forensic pathologist himself. The stardust that magical book had sprinkled in his eyes as a teenager lingered, fuelling excitement when calls to examine bodies came. He loved the mixture of medical knowledge and detective work. He was firmly wedded to absolute integrity.

‘I was determined to adhere to the truth, with its beautiful simplicity, and not allow emotion, with all its treachery, to muddy that simplicity.’

But gradually experience changed his naive trust and confidence in his own principles and knowledge.

‘I became a forensic pathologist to be a seeker of truth. That meant I must stand up for the truth whatever the pressure I was placed under to massage it. I see now that this is the sort of noble thought a keen young man of limited experience might have. I had not worked on enough cases to know how malleable a concept truth is for some people, nor how open to interpretation, instinct and inclination are all truths, even those that appear to be scientific fact … I was still deluding myself that it was always possible to find a moral pathway that everyone would recognize as clear and correct.’

And the emotional payload death carried for the living, took a heavy toll. He forced himself to detach from it. One of the most harrowing times was being confronted by 137 young people from many different countries aboard a party vessel, the Marchioness, mowed down by a dredger on the Thames. 51 died. Systematically and doggedly identifying and doing autopsies on so many young healthy people had repercussions – both short and longer term.

‘It was an extremely intense week. To see so many young people here was not just unusual, it was shocking. I was aware, as though in my peripheral vision, of the intense misery of parents, fearing the worst, waiting for news.’

One such repercussion related to identification. Being in the water meant the fingers were not amenable to the usual fingerprint checks. Dr Shepherd was obliged to cut off hands and send them elsewhere for specialised testing. Some were stitched back on, but not all. And this became one of many times when the consequences of exposing the truth was seen in the fall out the pathologist was subject to. Caught in the crossfire between both warring barristers and rival pathologists, he had to account for what he did as well as what he omitted to do. Some of his cases were very high profile indeed – the Hungerford massacre, the Rachel Nickell and Stephen Lawrence murders, Harold Shipman’s victims, Joy Gardner death, the 7 July Islamic attacks in London – dragging his name into the public eye. At times he felt helpless in the face of miscarriages of justice, courtroom humiliations, and it was inevitably hard to maintain a dispassionate stance and defend the truth as he saw it.

‘When I chose this career, I thought that I would be conveying the truth about the dead to the living – who would be grateful to hear it. But, as we approached the new century, I instead was starting to feel like the faithful dog that proudly lays a stick at the feet of his master only to receive a hearty kick for his efforts.

In places the level of detail is quite lurid and not for the squeamish, but the book is beautifully written and humbly insightful. I learned some fascinating facts about interpretation of detail at the scene of crimes or in the mortuary, gleaned from forty years experience and over 23,000 autopsies. And the whole story is a salutary reminder of how much we owe to the dedication and commitment of the emergency services and out of hours work of the whole team. Gruelling hours, unwholesome tasks, unjustified criticism, and precious little thanks. I salute this honest, clever, dedicated man.

Reading the end from his own perspective, the hideous injustice of his whole career being besmirched by accusations of misconduct with respect to a dead baby’s injuries, first to the Home Office and GMC, and thence to the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service, seems monstrously unfair. Small wonder that he was immobilized by dread, haunted by the clawing stench of decay, a hell-hole of body parts and distorted corpses, tormented by self-doubt. He seriously contemplated suicide. He was paying a heavy price for compassion and caring. It took time and compromise and many hours of flying a plane to restore a measure of equilibrium.

It’s a seeringly honest, sobering account, and I was left in awe of the writer who never gave up on searching for the real truth in spite of the personal and professional cost, determined to give understanding and a degree of closure to devastated families. Its strapline reads: The Life and Many Deaths of Britain’s Top Forensic Pathologist. A perfect summary. Justifiably a bestseller.


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