Forensic Pathology in South Africa

What is forensic pathology?

Forensic pathology is a sub-specialty of pathology that focuses on determining the cause of death by examining a corpse.

South Africa’s Forensic Pathology Service

The Forensic Pathology Service falls under the Department of Health and deals with all cases of unnatural and unexplained deaths. Many of the unexplained death cases turn out to be due to natural causes, such as undiagnosed heart disease or an infection.

What does a forensic pathologist do?

Post-mortem examinations

Assisted by a Forensic Pathology Officer, the pathologist examines dead individuals to accurately establish their identity, the day of death and the cause of death.

They consider the body of the deceased to be a crime scene that they, as medical detectives, process in order to find and preserve evidence to present in future court evidence.

External examination

This reveals tell-tale signs on clothing, such as blood spatter or gunshot soot.

The deceased’s body may exhibit signs of a medical condition such as emaciation, indicating a severe disease like cancer or AIDS.

The body is examined from top to toe and special test samples can be taken to assist in a variety of ways:  toxicological analysis, microbiology to identify infections, chemical analysis, anthropology, odontology – the list of possibilities is very long.

A full body Lodox X-ray image in the case of multiple gunshots. Many of the white spots are bullets but some are metal press studs of the jeans the deceased was wearing. Red indicate the bullets. The yellow rectangle encircles the press studs.

In the Western Cape two of the big mortuaries have Lodox X-ray machines, which we use to do a full body X-ray. Other mortuaries have access to X-ray facilities at government hospitals. This assists hugely in many cases.

For example, where to look for the bullets in a body.

Once located, these bullets will be retrieved and examined by ballistic experts to match them to the murder weapon.

Internal examination

After the external examination, the internal examination is done by removing the chest and abdominal organs and the brain. Earn organ is examined individually and weighed.

Samples for microscopic and toxicological examination can be taken.

DNA samples may assist in identifying the deceased and/or the murderer.

In some instances, a natural disease process is discovered, which means further criminal investigation is not necessary. The finding may be very important for the relatives of the deceased, to come to understand the death and maybe even have themselves tested for risk factors.

Apart from doing autopsies, forensic pathologists are kept busy in many ways:

  • Going to scenes of death when requested by police investigators.
  • Compilation of autopsy reports.
  • Special investigations, for example microscopic examination of organ sections.
  • Drafting medical opinions on cause of death for the court.
  • Giving testimony in court.
  • Advising relatives of the deceased of possible familial disease so that they can go for a check-up and preventive treatment.
  • Teaching undergraduate and postgraduate medical students, lawyers and forensic pathology officers.
  • Research.

Who helps the forensic pathologist at the mortuary?

The forensic pathology officer, who is trained on the job. These officers are not medically qualified, but are taught how to assist. They need a Grade 10, a valid driver’s licence and the ability to work respectfully with living and dead people.

Forensic Pathology Officer

How do you become a forensic pathologist in South Africa?

  • This is a summary of qualifications and time required to become a forensic pathologist:
  • Matric/Grade 12/Umalusi with recommended subjects such as Life Science, Physical Science, Mathematics and English.
  • Six years of medical school.
  • One year of internship under supervision.
  • Two years of COSMOS (community service medical officer service).
  • Four years of registrar training at a medical school.

The above information was extracted from an article originally published in QUEST (2012) by Linda Liebenberg. To read the full article please click here.

Where can I study forensic pathology?

Additional information:

A UCT TV/Stepping Stones Production documentary on the Forensic Pathology Institute in Cape Town.


26 Responses to “Forensic Pathology in South Africa”

  1. Matome says:

    I want to be a foreignsic pathology officer, i’ve studied LIFE ORIENTATION, ANCILLARY HEALTH CARE, MATHEMATICS LITERACY, ENGLISH, HUMAN SOCIAL SCIENCE and SEPEDI at an ABET LEVEL 4 and a valid driver’s license, so may u please help desperate unemployed man of 40 years of age.

  2. Matome says:

    I want to be a foreignsic pathology officer, i’ve studied LIFE ORIENTATION, ANCILLARY HEALTH CARE, MATHEMATICS LITERACY, ENGLISH, HUMAN SOCIAL SCIENCE and SEPEDI at an ABET LEVEL 4 so may u please help desperate unemployed man of 40 years of age.

  3. Siphiwe says:

    I want 2 become a forensic pathology(medical detective)n i didn’t do physical science and mathematics but i did life science and mathematics literacy…what shuold i do.???

  4. Sithe says:

    I am an FET student I need help I want to study pathology what can I do to qualify for university entry level

  5. TSHENOLO says:

    Greetings, I am a second year student studying Biochemistry and Microbiology which takes 3 years to complete. how can I continue my studies heading to being a Forensic Pathologist?

  6. lawrence moloko says:

    please i need a help. i want to be a forensic pathology officer , can you please help me with the information.Or any short course to do that when the post come i can apply for it please.