Public Safety

Investigating Deaths: What it Takes to Be a Forensic Pathologist

Forensic pathology doctors Steven Campman and Leslie Anderson consult on a case at the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office.

If your exposure to forensic pathology is TV crime shows, you may think it’s purely a tool for solving criminal cases. But the science behind determining a cause of death has tremendous value at a personal level for those who have lost a family member and for society as a gauge of public health and safety. San Diego County Chief Deputy Medical Examiner Steven Campman said the field is an opportunity to do extremely interesting work and make significant contributions that could include diagnosing something that might save lives.

Yet, he says the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office has seen fewer candidates for their forensic pathology fellowship program, as have training programs around the country, and he is concerned having enough forensic pathologists could be a problem in the future.

Campman said he knew he wanted to go into his field when he was in high school, and 35 years later he continues to find his career satisfying.

“We figure things out, it’s challenging work and hugely important for all kinds of reasons. We provide answers for families, and for the public’s safety at times,” Campman said. “We provide objective documentation of what’s happened, maybe for use in court, and in the bigger picture for the public good.”

Forensic pathologists are doctors who specialize in the study of injuries and sudden deaths. This is done by examining medical evidence, usually by performing autopsies, to determine the cause of death, as well as evaluating the person’s medical, mental and behavioral history, as well as law enforcement investigative information to determine a manner of death and document how the person sustained injuries.

A medical examiner is a forensic pathologist who works for a legal jurisdiction such as a county or state.

A pathologist may do this work only in the autopsy room, or if requested, by also going out in the field. It often means talking with friends or family of the person to better understand the circumstances and history.

Leslie Anderson, a Forensic Pathology Fellow, started working at the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office in July. She is originally from Canada, where she obtained her degree and did her residency. When it came time to apply for her final year of subspecialty training, she chose San Diego because the program is fully accredited by the National Association of Medical Examiners.

Besides sunnier and milder weather, Anderson said she was also looking for a change to expand her training. She points out that there are “different types of deaths, different social issues, and different drugs” in San Diego. Indeed, she has handled “really amazing diverse cases,” including gunshot wounds, drownings and scuba deaths, which are not as common in Canada.

“They have a really strong program here. The facilities are newer and they have toxicology on site here.  I know I’m going to get excellent training,” said Anderson. “It’s been an excellent experience so far.”

She said she became interested in this field because as a child she would watch murder mystery shows with her parents and she was always fascinated with how examining a victim could help solve crimes. Anderson sees her work as falling “at the intersection of medicine and the criminal justice system.” She also spoke of the preventative role it can play in public health and trends, as well as the healing impact on individual families.

“It’s a wide-ranging impact and it’s a part of life that most people don’t often get to see. It’s fascinating and a privilege to be in this line of work,” Anderson said.

Some examples of how it is plays a role in the public good is in epidemiology of deaths, or with death trends such as drug overdoses of particular drugs or drug compounds, or with increases in deaths of the same manner, such as pedestrian deaths. Often information gathered regarding death trends and increases can be shared with decision-makers to try to determine if there are any solutions to prevent or reduce those deaths, Campman said.

To become a forensic pathologist, people need to obtain a four-year college degree and a four-year-program medical degree. During medical school, everyone receives general medical training including working with patients under supervision, baby delivery, internal medicine, pediatrics and surgery. Campman said this allows students to see what is right for them. If after that, they are interested in specializing in pathology, they must complete a residency of 4-5 years at a hospital and then another year of subspecialty training in forensic pathology, Campman said. The County offers a fellowship for forensic pathology at the Medical Examiner’s Office, he said.

Currently, two San Diego County deputy medical examiners are former fellows of the office, Campman said.

Certainly, it is not a career for everyone. For all the intriguing, enthralling, and rewarding work, there will also be times when they may see disturbing deaths or hear about difficult circumstances, and they will talk to angry grieving family members on occasion. While there will always be some of that, Campman always remembers that his work can bring solace and understanding to grieving families.

In addition to formal training, Campman said forensic pathologists must have objectivity, a background understanding of people in general, some knowledge about grief, and the ability to talk to people in an understanding and thoughtful manner, Campman said.

“People do go into forensic pathology for all kinds of different reasons,” Campman said. “There are people like me that went into it on purpose because of how interesting it seemed, but there are others that go into pathology because maybe they started off in surgery but found that they couldn’t be away from their family so much, be on call all the time and have to work in an operating room constantly, so they chose pathology as an option that might allow for a better family life.”

Visit the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office website to learn about available Forensic Pathology Fellowships or other positions at the Medical Examiner’s Office.

Yvette Urrea Moe is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact