Derrick Pounder - Transcript Summary

Derrick PounderProfessor of Forensic Medicine, University of Dundee

Interview location: Dundee University
Interview date
: 7th December 2002

Key Themes: Autopsy, International Perspective, Motivation


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Section 1

  • Brought up in the Welsh valleys in a mining community:  “I belong to that generation of the working class that was the first to go to university...because of the socialist movement and the trade union movement and all their support for education.”
  • Got into medicine because of an interest in science, and found himself attracted to pathology as “the foundation science of all of medicine”.
  • Started training as a pathologist in Dublin where he got drawn into forensics as a result of helping with autopsies for the city’s coroner. “The problem solving, I suppose, was the fascinating part...  It was ‘medical sleuthing’ on a day to day basis.”  
  • Discusses some of the risks of the profession, eg possible infection from TB, HIV etc, and how health and safety procedures have changed.
  • Points out that although public perception of pathologists is that they are all involved in autopsies, he is in fact in a “very small minority”. “Most pathologists are not performing autopsies, they're in hospital practice and doing laboratory work to support the investigation of illness in the living.”
  • Discusses the forensic pathologist’s role in supporting public health measures in terms of carbon monoxide poisoning, seat belt directives, and drink driving laws etc. “We forget where [the momentum for safety laws] started sometimes -- it started in the autopsy room.”

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Section 2

  • Explains how a life-long sympathy for “the underdog” has led him into working in the human rights field.
  • Gives some powerful international examples of where his evidence has helped confirm abuses of human rights such as torture and killings in police detention.
  • Talks of participating in investigations of genocide in the Balkans.  The task of establishing identity is huge, involving DNA testing of hundreds of thousands of relatives of the dead and testing bone samples from 20-30,000 bodies to match them. “This is the forensic pathology equivalent of a moon shot – it's the cutting edge of science.”
  • Mentions different cultural attitudes to the mourning process.  
  • Poignant story about people identifying their dead from their clothing.  Although forensic pathologists are trained to develop professional detachment without losing their compassion, he admits that it “becomes very difficult when you're faced with the emotion of survivors”.
  • In the past there was “the assumption that doctors would acquire [the ability to deal with these emotions] by osmosis”.  But today medical education is much improved in that respect.
  • Mentions one particular memory that has lingered since an assignment in Palestine: “whenever I see a nativity scene just before Christmas I remember this old guy…”
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Section 3

  • Today forensic pathology is less isolated from the wider community and this fits with his own motivations. “We don't do the science for scientific reasons, we do it for social reasons.”  
  • Explains that serving the community is fundamental to his job, whether it be in the international human rights arena or more locally, dealing with accidental deaths and suicides.
  • Suggests that lack of awareness of the pathologist’s many roles stems in part from the modern tendency to shield people from the reality of death. “There were times when most people died at home... and everybody had seen a corpse.”
  • Describes his own experiences in the autopsy room and how respect for the dead does not necessarily mean being “grim” and “glum-faced”.
  • Points out that although his human rights work is political, when you are called upon to be an objective scientist you must put the politics aside.  “Leaving out the emotional language is a very important part of being the expert.”
  • Talks about how important it is to banish preconceptions and keep a completely open mind.
  • A few more stories which relate to these issues, including assignments in South Africa during and after the apartheid era.
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Section 4

  • Returns to the science, and discusses the challenge of establishing cause and circumstances of death in mass graves or when bodies have lain undiscovered for long periods.
  • Discusses importance of autopsies in recognising and understanding new diseases, giving the example of new variant CJD.  “We need the autopsies, we need the tissue from the autopsies, we need the time to work on that tissue.” Emphasises the importance of building up archives for this kind of work. 
  • Makes the case for a broader, more objective discussion between pathologists and the general public about issues of tissue retention and autopsy.  “We need to step back a bit from the emotion.”
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