The World of Forensic Laboratory Testing

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Forensic Pathology and Post-mortem Examinations (Autopsies)

Pathology involves the study of changes in the body caused by disease or injury. Forensic pathology involves the evaluation of pathology issues that arise in public forums such as coroner’s and criminal investigations, and in civil litigation. Forensic pathologists are experts in histopathology, which deals with structural alterations of the human body, and may become experts in related areas such as forensic toxicology, which is concerned with poisoning and the effects of poisons on the body.

During a post-mortem, the forensic pathologist first conducts a "gross examination." This involves detailed assessment and documentation of physical characteristics such as height, weight, colour of hair/eyes/skin, any physical markings (scars, tattoos, wounds, etc.), or any other physical anomalies. The post-mortem also includes dissection and measurement of the internal organs. From these tissues, samples may be taken for microscopic examination. Other samples may include blood, fluid from the eye (vitreous humour), urine, bile from the gallbladder, stomach contents, body hair, nail, and indeed solid organs such as liver, brain, and lung. Such samples may be used for a range of investiagtions including toxicology testing, DNA typing, blood grouping, culture for infectious disease, pregnancy testing, and various other chemical tests.

The fluid from the eye (vitreous humour) can be useful for helping ascertain a cause of death as it can be tested for a number of different substances, including alcohol, drugs and some other poisons, glucose, and electrolytes. The eyeball is a protected environment and thus this sample is usually available if death has followed severe trauma, for example. Vitreous humour is easy to collect and is quite useful in that some changes in concentration of substances that normally occur rapidly after death in blood, for example, take place less rapidly in vitreous humor. The results of vitreous humour analysis may aid in the diagnosis of certain conditions such as diabetic ketoacidosis, dehydration, and renal failure.

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