The Covid-19 pandemic saw a dramatic increase in the number of old skeletal remains being referred to the State Pathologist as a result of people making discoveries while “out walking their dogs”.
Increased outdoor activity resulted in more people coming across old remains which required examination to determine if they had died in suspicious circumstances, Chief State Pathologist Dr Linda Mulligan said on Thursday.
About 40 skeletal remains were referred to the Office of the State Pathologist (OSP) in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, up from 27 in 2019 and 17 in 2018. It is understood that a majority of these referrals turned out to be animal bones. Many of the human remains located were more than 100 years old, meaning they were referred to the National Museum.
The increase in skeletal finds is part of a general increase in the workload of the OSP, which is responsible for investigating suspicious deaths. In 2020, it dealt with 345 bodies, a 32 per cent increase since 2017.
Speaking at the 40th annual symposium of the faculty of pathology of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, Dr Mulligan said part of this rise was because the office had started taking on 25 per cent of the Dublin mortuary’s workload. It was also related to an increase in domestic homicide cases and increased gangland violence.
The number of homicides involving children was also an issue, Dr Mulligan said. She said the lack of pathologists in Ireland specializing in children “is a real issue at the moment”.
Covid-19 had a large impact on the work of the office, she said. He placed an increased focus on autopsies as a medical learning tool and drove home to the public “what a complex beast the autopsy process was”.
The office also had a role in mass mortality planning, including how bodies would be stored. “It was a very strange time,” the doctor said.
She said the office’s position had improved significantly since 2019 when it was unable to recruit a State pathologist and an assistant State pathologist. It now has five pathologists and a proposal to open regional autopsy centers is being considered. This could be beneficial in exposing medical staff to autopsy as a potential career path, she said.
Tentative discussions are also taking place into the possibility “collocating” the office within a hospital, which Dr Mulligan said would be beneficial for training purposes.
Dr Mulligan’s predecessor, Prof Marie Cassidy, gave a potted history of forensic pathology in Ireland. She recalled the “nomadic” existence of Ireland’s best-known forensic pathologist, Dr John Harbison, who would “travel from body to body” and whose wife saw him more on the news than in person. His tenure coincided with a dramatic rise in the number of suspicious deaths in Ireland. There were 23 cases in 1975 and more than 100 in 1997, she said.
Prof Cassidy said she and Dr Harbison formed “an unlikely pair” when she was recruited by him in 1998. “But it worked.”
She said Dr Harbison was “old school” and liked to shock young gardaí and flummox barristers in court with Latin terminology.
“In contrast, I was blunt and to the point,” Prof Cassidy said. “Straight down the middle, as we should be.”
She said Dr Harbinson provided an incredible service throughout his career. “But he was curtailed by lack of resources, lack of time and probably a general lack of interest. The old adage ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ appeared to be the mantra of the Department of Justice.”
She said she could immediately see there was work to be done to provide a 21st-century pathology service, “or maybe even a 20th-century pathology service”, and that Dr Harbison supported her fully in this.