The COVID-19 pandemic reinforced the usefulness of autopsy as a tool for progressing medical knowledge, according to the annual report of the Office of the State Pathologist (OSP).
Pathologist attendance at court cases and inquests diminished because of the public-health restrictions.
Chief state pathologist Dr Linda Mulligan writes that the organisation’s unique liaison between the coroners, An Garda Síochána, the Faculty of Pathology (Royal College of Physicians Ireland, RCPI), and mortuaries around the country meant that it played a pivotal role in the development of autopsy.
Following reorganisation of the Department of Justice, the OSP now reports under the department’s criminal justice pillar.
This month, the chief state pathologist will have two full-time state pathologists on staff in Dublin.
A part-time locum pathologist in Cork will support the service, with plans to take on a qualified consultant histopathologist to follow on-the-job training.
The main activity of the office is post-mortem examinations in cases of sudden, unexplained death, where a criminal or suspicious element is present.
In approximately 15% of cases in 2020, this also involved a scene visit.
The pathologists deal with homicides, as well as a wide range of natural and unnatural deaths, for example, road-traffic collisions, accidents, and drug-related deaths.
During 2020, a total of 345 cases were dealt with, compared with 335 in 2019, a figure of 286 in 2018, and 261 in 2017.
The office, at the direction of the Dublin District Coroner, carried out 109 adult non-suspicious post-mortem examinations.
There were 39 cases of skeletonised remains, 28 of which were documented as animal bones and 11 as human bones.
This increase (from 27 in 2019) was attributed to increased public outdoor activity and, in part, to new service-level agreements with independent forensic anthropologists.
Cases had a wide geographic spread, as follows:
- 113 (60%) in Leinster,
- 55 (29%) in Munster,
- 11 (6%) in Connaught and,
- Nine (5%) in Ulster.