How have post-mortems changed?

17 June 2016

Interview with

Dr Suzy Lishman, President of the Royal College of Pathologists

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 wasn't allowed at all. It was against people's religion, or against their cultural beliefs, certainly it wasn't 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 wasn't something that anyone would volunteer to have done.

Chris - And when did the law change and people decide, well it's pretty important to know why someone's died and we're going to make this part of that process?

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

Chris - It's quite stigmatised though, isn't 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 hasn't 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... I've often referred to it as like the final operation, so it's like having surgery in an operating theatre except you haven't got all those machines trying to keep you alive.

So it's 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 somebody's loved one, someone's son, someone's father, someone's mother, and I don't think the public always appreciate that. And I think some of the media and, perhaps, horror films don't help at all because people see post-mortems as something that are gory and bloody, but that's not reality at all.

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