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Britain's top forensic pathologist: 'You're exposed to man's inhumanity to man every day'

Dr Richard Shepherd said he did not realise the impact his job was having on him until his breakdown two years ago.

Dr Richard Shepherd gave evidence at the Jo Cox murder trial in 2016.
Dr Richard Shepherd gave evidence at the Jo Cox murder trial in 2016.
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

DR RICHARD SHEPHERD has worked as a forensic pathologist on major terror events like 9/11 and the 7/7 bombings in London. He gave evidence at the inquest into Princess Diana’s death and at the murder trial of British politician Jo Cox. 

He has performed 23,000 post-mortems over the course of his career, which he looks back at in his recently published book Unnatural Causes: The Life and Many Deaths of Britain’s Top Forensic Pathologist.

Shepherd won’t pick one out of the many high-profile cases he worked on, when asked if any stand out.

“They are all related to an individual or individuals and each one is critically important for the family,” he told TheJournal.ie.

“Professionally, every case is fascinating, I still think that. Each case is a puzzle and each one is different. If you ever get to the point where you’re thinking it’s just another heart attack or pub brawl or shooting then it’s time to get out of it. Honestly, after all these years, there are stab wounds that I look at and still think ‘that’s different, I don’t think I’ve seen that before’.”

There are some important cases he worked on that did not make it into the headlines, like that of a woman who killed her abusive partner.

“That predated a lot of work on domestic violence being prosecuted for doing things as a result of domestic violence.”

The case of a girl with epilepsy who died in her sleep gave him an understanding of sudden death in epilepsy.

“For me that was a really quite important one because the family taught me an awful lot about how I need to behave. Equally, I felt that I really helped them in their grief, to understand what had happened. You can’t do their grieving for them, but you can give them something solid: answers.”

Anxiety, stress, grief

Shepherd said he had always been passionate about his work. He enjoyed solving mysteries and offering comfort to grieving families. But this all took a toll on him personally. 

“You’re exposed to man’s inhumanity to man on a daily basis. It can be in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning. People have done terrible things to each other either deliberately or accidentally and there is anxiety and stress and grief that comes with that. These are day-to-day events in the job. 

And then I would come home to my family and I had two young children so I couldn’t really let my working days in through the door or outside of me. Each case was nibbling away, just a little bit each time. And your resilience gets to a point where you start to wobble but you don’t realise it.

He had a panic attack as he flew solo over Hungerford in England in 2016 – all of the trauma he had experienced over his career had finally bubbled to the surface.

“The fabric of the world just shifted, it was a very strange feeling out of the blue and it was quite distressing. That was the first inkling that my well of resilience was close to being empty.”

It was after this breakdown, and during some time off from his work to recover, that he started writing the book. 

His struggles are detailed in the book and Shepherd said he felt this was important to highlight the need for people in this line of work to take care of their mental health.

“Having contact early can save people going through very bad periods of time. If I had been talking to someone on a regular basis over the years, possible I wouldn’t ever have got to the period of being so badly affected.

“I think the trouble is that it was seen as a weakness and I think there is a social shift now, people realise it is not a weakness, it’s just the reality.” 

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