Forensic Pathologist

A forensic pathologist is a medical doctor who performs autopsies to determine the cause and manner of unexpected or suspicious deaths. They can work in both medical and governmental settings.


What is a forensic pathologist?

A forensic pathologist is a medical doctor who investigates unexpected, suspicious, unnatural and/or violent deaths. They usually do this by performing autopsies (a medical exam of a body after death). Their work involves both medical and legal matters.

Pathology is the branch of medicine that involves the laboratory examination of samples of body tissues for diagnostic or forensic purposes. “Forensic” means “related to scientific methods of solving crimes.” But not all deaths that forensic pathologists investigate are criminal.

Forensic pathologists have specialized training in the following areas:

  • Toxicology: The branch of science involving the nature, effects and detection of poisons. Examples of poisonings include carbon monoxide, venomous snake or insect bites, and substances like opioids and alcohol.
  • Ballistics and ballistics wounds: The study of the motion and effects of projectile units, such as bullets.
  • Trace evidence: The material(s) left behind when two objects or two people interact, such as fibers, bodily fluids, gunshot residue, hair and fingerprints.
  • Serology: The study of blood and other bodily fluids. Forensic pathologists may look at these fluids under a microscope or perform tests on the samples with machines, such as analyzers for blood tests.
  • DNA technology: The study and manipulation of genetic material (DNA). Forensic pathologists may compare evidence DNA to a suspect’s DNA or use DNA to confirm the identity of the body, for example.

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

What do forensic pathologists do?

The main role of a forensic pathologist is to determine the mechanism, time and manner of death (that is, homicide, suicide, accidental, natural or undetermined) in cases in which a person dies unexpectedly or violently.

To do this, a forensic pathologist:

  • Confirms the identification of a body or gathers information that helps determine identification.
  • Studies the medical history of the deceased person.
  • Evaluates crime scene evidence in relation to the death (if applicable).
  • Performs an autopsy to uncover evidence of injury or disease. They carefully report this evidence, as it may be necessary for a future trial on the death.
  • Collects and analyzes trace evidence from the body.

After they’ve finished their investigation, the forensic pathologist prepares a written report explaining the mechanism, time and manner of death. They may also testify to these findings in court as an expert witness.

Forensic pathologists may also be involved in examining cases of living patients who have experienced sexual assault or physical abuse.

Where do forensic pathologists work?

Most forensic pathologists work for a city or county government in the medical examiner’s or coroner’s offices. Others work in hospitals, medical schools or in a private practice that provides autopsy services under contract to attorneys, families and others.

Forensic pathologists spend most of their time in a morgue performing autopsies or in a lab examining tissue samples and running tests. Occasionally, forensic pathologists may have to go to a death scene to work with police investigators.


Additional Common Questions

What’s the difference between a forensic pathologist, coroner and medical examiner?

A person can be both a medical examiner and a forensic pathologist, but the titles have different meanings.

Forensic pathology is a medical specialty, and a forensic pathologist is a medical doctor. The title of “medical examiner” is usually the job title of a forensic pathologist who works for a government.

A coroner is an elected or appointed public official whose main role is to certify the cause of death. Most coroners aren’t medical doctors, so they usually work with a forensic pathologist.

How do you become a forensic pathologist?

To become a board-certified forensic pathologist, you must:

  • Complete pre-medical education at a college or university, earning a bachelor’s degree.
  • Complete medical school, earning a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree.
  • Have at least three years of advanced medical education in a residency training program.
  • Pass board certification exams through the American Board of Pathology.
  • Complete a fellowship in forensic pathology after certification in anatomical and clinical pathology.

How long does it take to become a forensic pathologist?

It usually takes about 13 years to become a forensic pathologist. This includes pre-medical education, medical school, a residency and a fellowship.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Forensic pathologists are essential medical professionals who work behind the scenes to medically investigate unexpected or suspicious deaths. They have specialized knowledge and skills to examine bodies and accurately determine the cause and manner of death.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 01/17/2023.

Learn more about our editorial process.