Elective Extravaganza: Forensic Pathology in South Africa

Today, a fifth year medical student, Ryan, joins me to talk about his fourth year elective in Forensic Pathology. Readers of the blog might remember that I found Forensics to be immensely interesting but also emotionally heavy. You can read more of those posts here.

elective extravaganza forensic path

What was your experience with Forensic Pathology at medical school before your elective?

We had a two-week practical rotation and a two-week theory block, both of which I enjoyed. We did not really get to do much practical per se, but did observe a lot of autopsies.

Why did you choose to do Forensic Pathology for your elective?

I have always found it interesting and I always knew that I would do it for one of my two electives. I wanted more exposure in the field and did not really consider doing anything else.

Was there anything challenging about organising this elective, given that you would be working with medico-legal matters?

It was very easy to organise. I got a contact from one of the Forensic Pathology lecturers at my medical school and from there it went smoothly. I didn’t need any kind of clearance, but it was implicit that I would never comment (outside of the lab) on any of the court cases I attended or any of the autopsies I witnessed.

Notoriously photo-shy Ryan at the Bainskloof Pass, 2011.
Notoriously photo-shy Ryan at the Bainskloof Pass, 2011.

Which skills and knowledge did you learn during the elective?

I attended a lot more autopsies than on the rotation through my school, which was a good experience for someone so interested in it. I also got to handle some of the remains, which you don’t get to do when you are in a group of fifteen students. So I could finally feel what a liver that has undergone fatty change feels like, and a consolidated lung.

The importance of keeping good notes was emphasised, because many of the court cases we went to were of autopsies done YEARS ago.

My supervisor had me peruse her collection of histology slides, which was a great learning experience (and had me spending more time with my Weather’s than ever before).

Court attendance was also very interesting – learning about the process, what to expect in court, and also the fact that a lot of South Africa’s legal system is like medical school: HURRY UP AND WAIT.

For which kind of medical student would you recommend an elective in Forensic Pathology?

Anybody who is interested in it, but it might not be the best idea if you are very sensitive, especially to smells. Cadavers and bodies at the morgue do not smell the same. Also know that you will probably witness autopsies on children, and prepare yourself emotionally for that.

Do you think a sound knowledge of Forensic Pathology is important for a future general practitioner, and if so, why?

Yes. As I mentioned earlier, it is really important to understand how vital good note-taking is. It can save you as a professional one day. A sound knowledge of evidence collection, especially in the case of rape kits, is also vital.

I feel like Forensics is a natural extension of medicine, as death is a natural (sometimes unnatural) extension of life. In this sense it helps with the understanding of medicine.

Lastly, South Africa has a huge shortage of qualified Forensic Pathologists. In small rural areas, it is often a local General Practitioner who performs the majority of autopsies – and since most of us are placed in rural areas for Community Service, it will serve us well to be comfortable with the idea.


  1. harveylisam says:

    What a cool elective! I mean, I’m not at all interested in pathology, but we get basically no exposure to anything like this in medical school over here. It definitely seems like a good experience to broaden your perspective and breath of knowledge.

    1. I think it does help, yes. I’m not interested in it as a career like Ryan is, but the rotation definitely broadened my perspective too.

  2. peace says:

    haha “hurry up and wait”, it brilliantly describe a theme in my medical school as well.
    Thank you for the post Ryan.

    1. Glad you agree! 😛

  3. Hi Barefootmeds,

    I am currently doing a forensic pathology elective in Detroit! I agree with you– death is the natural progression of life (which we focus all of our energy on in medical school), however it is important to understand death as well. I am only 1 week into this rotation, but doing the autopsies and discussing cases during rounds has given me an appreciation for my own mortality, and of course mortality in general. Haven’t attended any court cases or visited crime scenes yet, but that is coming up!

    1. Thanks for stopping by! I definitely had to deal with my sense of mortality a lot during my rotation too. That’s definitely something they don’t warn you about! Good luck with the rest of the rotation, I hope it’s a good experience for you 🙂

  4. Thank you for sharing this! I’m in my first year of medicine in California and I’m trying to decide if autopsy pathology would be of interest to me. Am also starting to feel like “HURRY UP AND WAIT” might just be the official motto

    1. I’m glad you liked it 🙂 It’s always hard to figure out if a certain discipline is for you – especially in first year. I’d suggest reading some non-fiction like Stiff by Mary Roach. Personally I wasn’t fond of her writing style, but the content is interesting. There are books similar to that out there too. That could help you figure out if it holds interest 🙂

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