Review: Autopsy by Ryan Blumenthal


Title: Autopsy:  Life In The Trenches With A Forensic Pathologist In Africa

Author: Dr. Ryan Blumenthal

Published: 13th April 2021, Jonathan Ball Publishers

Status: Read April 2021 courtesy Jonathan Ball Publishers/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

“These stories were gleaned from the trenches, amidst the blood and the guts of it all. I offer stories from my life and my ‘case book’.

I’ve read a number of memoirs written by forensic pathologists/coroners/medical examiners and the like who practice in the UK, USA and Australia, and I was curious as to how the experience might differ in a country like Africa. Ryan Blumenthal has been a forensic pathologist, working primarily in South Africa, for over twenty years. There are approximately 70,000 unnatural deaths per year in South Africa, and as one of only 56 certified forensic pathologists in the country, Blumenthal performs up to 500 autopsies a year, but the role of the profession extends beyond the physical act of completing an autopsy, forensic pathologists are also crime scene investigators, and legal witnesses who are required to give testimony in court. It is a job that requires physical and mental stamina to withstand the long hours of work, the constant exposure to death, and the need to adapt to scientific, technological and sociocultural changes.

“[Forensic medicine is] The application of medical knowledge and methodology for the resolution of legal questions and problems for individuals and societies.”

The general philosophy and practice of a forensic pathologist in South Africa is not too far removed from that of his (or her) colleagues in other countries, however they do face challenges unique to the country’s status as a developing nation, which means basic resources such as labour, electricity, running water and insect spray (vital due to the prevalence of flies) can be limited, or even absent, particularly in rural areas of the country, and in other third world areas of the African continent. Blumenthal describes what a typical autopsy and investigation entails for him, and while he is pragmatic about the lack of television’s CSI ‘fancyshmancy’ equipment, certain that the knowledge and ability of the forensic pathologist matters more, he does emphasise the importance of proper resourcing as a benefit society.

“As the Latin expression goes, ex Africa semper aliquid novi – always something new out of Africa.”

Forensic pathologists in Africa also face trauma that is unique to the culture and environment. This not only includes deaths caused by native wildlife like hippopotami, lions, elephants and kudu, as well as poisonings related to the misuse of traditional medicines, but also methods of murder such as ‘necklacing’, where a person’s torso and arms are trapped in a rubber tyre filled with gasoline and set alight. Deaths related to lightning strikes are more common in Africa than almost anywhere else. Blumenthal relates his experiences with these type of cases, as well as those from more common causes of unnatural death, such as car accidents, drug overdoses, gunshots and stabbing. I found both Blumenthal’s general observations and the details of the individual cases he shared to be fascinating.

“My wish is that this book will help to make you more aware and more mindful.”

Blumenthal’s writing is accessible with a minimal use of jargon but I do think the material could have been better organised as there is some repetition in both the information and prose. I wasn’t particularly keen on the moralising either, even though his observations and advice were generally reasonable, there were a few statements that belied Blumenthal’s claim of impartiality to the deceased.

“We close the eyes of the dead, but the dead open the eyes of the living.”

Elucidating the unique experiences and challenges faced by forensic pathologists, particularly in South Africa, overall I found Autopsy to be an interesting, informative and satisfying read.

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