Posts Tagged ‘forensic pathology’


#WomenInHealth: an interview with Senior Forensic Pathologist, Dr Linda Liebenberg

Thu, Sep 4th, 2014

Lodox interviews forensic pathologist Dr Linda Liebenberg as part of their #WomenInHealth series commemorating the work of South African female health-care professionals, with the aim of inspiring more young women to join the sciences and health-care professions, and was first published online by Stef Steiner on 1 September 2014.

Dr Linda Liebenberg - “This is not a day job, it’s a profession. There is always more to be done.”

Dr Liebenberg aptly describes her typical day-at-the-office as both “mad and deadly”.

Qualified with an MBChB degree in Forensic Medicine and a masters degree in Forensic Pathology, Linda has spent 14 years studying to reach her current joint appointment as Senior Forensic Pathologist at the Western Cape Department of Health and as an academic lecturer at the University of Cape Town. Dr Liebenberg gained her qualifications from the schools of Medicine at the University of Stellenbosch and the University of Cape Town.

What does a typical day look like for you? What do you do in your work hours?

My work at the Department of Health is spread over service delivery: completing forensic autopsies; compiling reports for court; testifying in court; police consultation and visiting crime sites.  I teach both under-graduate and post-graduate students at the University of Cape Town, and conduct ongoing research.

What attracted you to the work you do? Why did you enter this field?

My first attraction was to Anatomical Pathology and when I stumbled into Forensic Pathology, I was hooked. Apart from medicine, it combines a large number of disciplines, as well as practical application. Through forensic pathology I have and can gain knowledge of a human before they are born, and long after their death.

Who inspires you? Who is your hero?

I am inspired by the rare case that actually works out, and being able to give a family clarity on how a family member died.

My hero is any police officer who does their job despite the challenges and who is still dedicated to their jobs 100%. Committed police work inspires me.

What was your biggest challenge to getting to where you are today in your career?

My biggest challenge was realizing the number of hours, years and the amount of money I have had to put into training. This continues to be a challenge to me as a professional.

What do you think is the biggest health challenge in Africa?

Drugs, alcohol, malnutrition, as well as a lack of both facilities and health-care professionals. Our systems cannot accommodate the current need. There is an imbalance between supply and demand. We have a reckless society characterized by road accidents and domestic violence, which takes up billions [of rands] of government money which could be used to help prevent disease and find cures.

What motivates you and keeps you going/striving for more?

I am faced with something interesting, daily, I’m never bored. I strive for getting the answers right.

Do you have any advice for young women entering a career in medicine?

You can do it!

When I started medicine, in my first year, a lot of people kept asking me what I will do in my second year.  I proved to them that I am capable!

Also, it’s important to remember that medicine is not the glamour that you see on television.

What do you do for fun or to de-stress?

I garden, read a lot and watch forensic television series like ‘Body of Proof’.

Read up more on the work of Dr Liebenberg and her colleagues at the Salt River Morgue:

Forensic Pathology in South Africa

Fri, Jul 25th, 2014

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.