ASK Musings

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March 2023



Unnatural Causes by Dr Richard Shepherd

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
Those interested in the details of forensic pathology.

In a nutshell:
Forensic pathologist Dr Shepherd shares his experience in the field, along with how his work impacted his life and the lives of his family members.

Worth quoting:
N/A Audio book

Why I chose it:
Although I no longer work in emergency preparedness, I do still find the field fascinating, and because I did work on mass fatality response planning in particular, I

What it left me feeling:

This book basically did what is promised – it gave me some insight into forensic pathology in the UK. As someone who worked with forensic anthropologists and medical examiners / coroners in the US, I was interested to see if its much different in the UK. Not really, though the system of naming conventions is slightly different (e.g., in the state I worked in, a coroner was elected, while a medical examiner was a medical doctor, and one would find a medical examiner in large population areas, whereas it seems only coroner is used here).

Dr Shepherd spent most of his working life in the 1980s and later, so he’s seen the evolution of things like DNA testing for identification. He has also scene changes in how certain types of deaths are treated and investigated, including deaths in police or prison custody, and deaths of small children. He also worked on some well-known forensic events in the UK, including the Marchioness boat disaster on the Thames and the 7 July bombings in 2005.

He also had a wife and raised two children, and he speaks of how his working life impacted theirs. His wife later in life retrains to be a doctor as well, so their calendars are usually in conflict, with him on call for events taking place at any time day or night. There are a lot of professions where we assume someone will be available 24/7 (and rightly should be), but I don’t think we spend enough time thinking about how to best support the people and the families of the people who we expect to fill in those roles.

He touches often on the concept of truth, which I found fascinating. People in his profession are often called to make definitive conclusions, whereas often the data and examination lean heavily towards one conclusion, but others cannot necessarily be ruled out. How we die isn’t always straightforward, and the stories told around death aren’t complete if they don’t include the information the dead provide through examination of their bodies. And even then … sometimes we just cannot know exactly what or how something happened.

I listened to the author read the audio version of this, which I would recommend. However, he is very detailed in his descriptions of things, so if you would be sensitive to accurate discussions of anatomy after death as well as the manner of injury for things like homicide and sexual assault, I’d suggest skipping this one.

Recommend to a Friend / Keep / Donate it / Toss it:
None of the above

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