A night on the slab with the pathologists of the 70s

True crime drama is a staple of our entertainment nowadays, but back in 1973 it was a very different story

‘The time you feel really lonely is at work at night at the scene of a crime. You’re called out to some desolate field or moor somewhere and there’s a body with some peculiar marks.’ The Observer’s 28 October 1973 investigation into Britain’s forensic pathologists opens with one describing what could be an eerie scene from a contemporary detective drama. Now true crime podcasts are everywhere, aficionados share postmortem reports on sub-reddits and know instantly that a hyoid fracture could mean suspicious death, but back then pathology was an obscure and isolated world.

In 1972, before Silent Witness’s Dr Nikki Alexander or Patricia Cornwell’s Dr Kay Scarpetta had picked up a scalpel, forensic pathologists were under-appreciated, over-worked and apparently exclusively men. There were fewer than 30 working full-time, out of often-insalubrious premises, doing poorly paid postmortems and inquest appearances (known as the ‘12 quid special’) and ‘no young pathologists in training for forensic work’.

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