By Niall Gormley
Watching television is probably not what guidance counsellors advise their charges to spend their time on but for Ireland’s Chief State Pathologist, Dr Linda Mulligan, TV detectives were an inspiration for a career based on curiosity and discovery.
“I didn’t realise forensics pathology was really a career until I was sixteen and seventeen,” she says. “I used to watch Cracker and Taggart, and I was into the X-Files. I was interested in the investigation side of things. I discovered forensic pathology was a real career and I ended up asking my career guidance teacher about it and she advised me to try nursing or teaching!”
“So I said ‘I really want to do this’ and she sent me off to UCD. I ended up talking to one of the medical students there and that’s how I found out about pathology, blood sciences, laboratories and all of that.”
She thanks honours maths for helping her get the points for UCD but she also studied both biology and chemistry in the Leaving Cert. She spent six years studying medicine in UCD followed by two years in Australia working in hospitals as a clinical doctor.
After returning from Australia, Linda trained as a histopathologist on the South Dublin Scheme, working in St. James’s Hospital, Tallaght University Hospital and St. Vincent’s Hospital among others.
“Histopathologists are the doctors who look at the cells and the tissues of the body to diagnose cancers and other diseases. As part of that, if someone dies in the hospital, they’ll do an autopsy, which is aimed at finding the cause of death. I was always interested in that side of things – not a lot of pathologists like autopsy – but for me it was a giant puzzle and I was fascinated by it.”
On completion of her histopathology training, Dr. Mulligan wanted to train as a forensic pathologist. “The Office of the State Pathologist decided to start a new position of Deputy State Pathologist where they would take on a histopathologist and then train them up in forensics over a two year period. And that’s what I was… a guinea pig!”
Working with the law
The Office is part of the Department of Justice and is an integral part of many of the highest profile garda investigations and criminal trials. Having a background in science is one thing and dealing with the law is another. I asked Linda how she had felt about the courts, trials and the prospect of being cross-examined by barristers.
“Terrified,” she says with a laugh. “Yes, that is probably the most intimidating part of the job. The barristers are very good, with experts in every topic. Our evidence is based on the facts of the autopsy and what we have found. We are expert witnesses and always have to have evidence to support our interpretation of the findings.
“So what I did to address my fears was to go to court as often as I could with other pathologists and watched them giving evidence. On top of that I also did an expert witness training course which helped to develop skills for cross examination”
Part of a team
The State Pathologists’ Office forms part of network when it comes to major investigations which includes working with the gardaí, legal teams, coroners, Forensic Science Ireland and the courts. For Dr Mulligan this is one of the most rewarding aspects of the job.
“It’s a team role, our contribution is around the cause of death and interpretation of any injuries. It forms part of the larger picture, where scene-of-crime investigators are recording the scene; the gardaí are carrying out their investigations. We are just one cog in a larger machine.”
A more difficult part of the role is dealing with the families of people killed in different circumstances. In the bigger investigations there is no contact between the Office and families – this takes place at inquests run by coroners. Linda also finds this a rewarding part of the job in that they are able to answer questions people may have about the deaths of their loved ones and to help bring about closure.
A future for girls
On her journey to the Chief Pathologist’s office Linda has experienced changing attitudes to women in science and professional careers. She thinks that science was an early option for many women and in her course at UCD the gender balance was around 50:50. At the moment all six of the forensic pathologists in the Office are women.
“Gender equality to me is the right person for the job. If you have the skillset you should get the job,” she says. “But it does seem that science and women are a good match”
Teaching forensic pathology
Her role, and that of the Office, also has an education side to it. Last year Dr Mulligan was made a Clinical Professor in UCD School of Medicine where she lectures.
“We lecture for the Royal College of Surgeons, Trinity College, UCD, Galway and Dr. Bolster covers Cork University Medical School.”
In addition to teaching on courses for the Gardaí and Military Police, the office also promotes science in transition year programmes and in secondary schools.
As well as all that Linda has the office to run. During 2021, 327 cases were dealt with by the Office (this figure was 345 in 2020, 335 in 2019, 286 in 2018 and 261 in 2017). About one in six of these cases involve attending the scene of the incident. Part of the work can involve skeletonised remains sometimes from many years ago requiring forensic anthropology skills.
The Office provides an on-call service 7 days per week, 365 days a year. There is always a forensic pathologist on duty.
The headquarters of the Office of State Pathologist (OSP) in Whitehall in Dublin. The OSP provides the State with a national forensic pathology service where a forensic pathologist is on duty, twenty-four hours a day, each day of the year. An on-call rota is provided to An Garda Síochána and to all Coroners on a continual basis.