Science Interviews


Fri, 17th Jun 2016

How have post-mortems changed?

Dr Suzy Lishman, President of the Royal College of Pathologists

Listen Now    Download as mp3 from the show Autopsy: A Matter of Life and Death

We've been conducting autopsies for hundreds of years but they weren't punishmentcommonplace and often used as a criminal punishment, as Suzy Lishman explained to Chris Smith...

Suzy - Well for centuries it wasnít allowed at all. It was against peopleís religion, or against their cultural beliefs, certainly it wasnít seen as something that was desirable. Over the years, for example, post-mortems have been used as part of the punishment that criminals have. So if they were executed, for example, perhaps their body would then be donated for dissection and for teaching purposes. So, I think, although the value of the post-mortem was recognised, it wasnít something that anyone would volunteer to have done.

Chris - And when did the law change and people decide, well itís pretty important to know why someoneís died and weíre going to make this part of that process?

Suzy - In the last 100 years or so, itís become increasingly clear that post-mortem examinations reveal a huge amount of information and so theyíve become increasingly accepted. And at some point, in some places, itís become absolutely normal that if you die in a particular hospital or if you die following surgery, then itís standard practice that you have a post-mortem examination.

Chris - Itís quite stigmatised though, isnít it? A lot of people are quite suspicious, or concerned, or worried by the prospect of a loved one having a post-mortem. Is that because of its historical underpinnings?

Suzy - I think the history of post mortems hasnít helped. So if post mortems were seen as a punishment or something that was only done to you when you had no say in it then, obviously, people are going to be suspicious and not want to have it done. But I think there were quite a few misconceptions about post-mortems. There actually just really like... Iíve often referred to it as like the final operation, so itís like having surgery in an operating theatre except you havenít got all those machines trying to keep you alive.

So itís completely respectful; the post-mortem is done in a standardised way and people are treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve. And pathologists never forget that the person they are examining is somebodyís loved one, someoneís son, someone's father, someoneís mother, and I donít think the public always appreciate that. And I think some of the media and, perhaps, horror films donít help at all because people see post-mortems as something that are gory and bloody, but thatís not reality at all.


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