Questioning the body

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A review of Unnatural Causes, the autobiography of leading UK forensic pathologist Dr Richard Shepherd.

Submitted: July 18, 2019

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Submitted: July 18, 2019



The forensic pathologist is a figure that both fascinates and repulses the public imagination. Cropping up as everything from the grumpy walk-on in ‘cosy’ crime stories, usually in evening dress whatever the time of day; to the protagonists of, allegedly, more realistic dramas like CSI and Silent Witness.


In this candid and compassionate account of his professional life Richard Shepherd takes his readers past the clichés and stands them at his side as he wields his scalpel. Allowing them access to a world where scientific skill and human frailty collide in the search to understand and explain the greatest taboo of them all; death.


He does so with remarkable candour about the impact exposure to the worst humans are capable of has had on his personal life. Creating, aided by the influence of the sort of emotionally constrained childhood unique to the British middle class, a distance from life that makes him a brilliant scientist, but, by his own admission, frequently remote in his personal relationships.


Shepherd gives an overview of a career spanning some thirty plus years beginning with the Hungerford shootings in the late eighties that has takin in many of the major crimes and outrages since, including the Marchioness disaster and 7/7. He is appealingly modest about his role in these events, despite often providing evidence upon which successful prosecution might succeed or fail and relates many other cases that didn’t make the headlines; but were of equal importance to the families involved.


What shines through from every page is that for all his self-acknowledged emotional reticence his approach is one marked by deep compassion for all concerned. In several key instances it is evidence gathered by dogged scientific examination that prevents miscarriages of justice or identifies deaths that are the result of society’s indifference rather than criminality.


Shepherd also chronicles the way his discipline has changed over the past few decades, moving from the preserve of brilliant individuals like Bernard Spilsbury or his own inspiration Keith Simpson, to an enterprise involving a team of specialists. This has brought a huge leap forward in scientific expertise; but severed the close link between the pathologist and investigators that existed in previous generations.


He notes too, without much pleasure, the changes to the way that forensic pathology services operate, with all but a handful of hospitals closing the departments where the discipline was once taught and practitioners increasingly operating on a self-employed basis.


This is an honest and compassionate autobiography by a remarkable man who has spent his working life looking squarely at the aspects of humanity most of us are at pains to avoid. It is greatly to his credit that doing so seems to have given him such a deep respect for life itself.


Unnatural Causes:

The Life and Many Deaths of Britain’s Top Forensic Pathologist

Dr Richard Shepherd

(Penguin, 2019)


© Copyright 2019 A W Colclough. All rights reserved.

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