Medical Examiner's Office defies stereotypes, holds surprises

Doctors examine more than 8,000 bodies annually to determine causes of death

July 28, 2013|By Justin George, The Baltimore Sun

One in a series of occasional articles.

Hearses enter the six-story building in West Baltimore through garage doors that snap open and shut quickly, to keep business discreet.

Researchers who work across from the $43 million Forensic Medical Center catch glimpses of the drop-offs. They call the state-of-the-art center on the edge of the University of Maryland BioPark "the Bat Cave."

The morgue — shrouded in myth, misrepresented on screen — typically is portrayed as a dark, dank basement with sexy forensic investigators peering into microscopes, eccentric doctors weighing body parts, and officials pulling open refrigerated drawers, unzipping body bags and asking spouses: "Is this your husband?"

In reality, the largest free-standing medical examiner's office in the country is home to about 80 full-time employees, many of them pathologists, who work in an airy, bright, sterile but friendly atmosphere, where death is analyzed and documented in frank scientific detail. It's here that the state learns the facts behind thousands of deaths each year.

"It's not at all like it's portrayed on TV," spokesman Bruce Goldfarb said. "Our medical examiners don't wear high heels, and they are not running out into the field and chasing down people to interview."

But while it might not look as if it came from central casting, this building, to which few but police officers, paramedics and funeral directors have access, is home to museum-quality artifacts, sideshow-worthy oddities — and touches of dry wit.

First, the facts: This summer, crime, accidents or suspicious circumstances are sending between 13 and 18 bodies each day to the sole medical examiner's office for the entire state. The staff studies more than 8,000 bodies a year — and determines more than half to have succumbed to natural causes.

Homicide accounts for about 14 percent of deaths, suicide for 12 percent and accidents for 27 percent.

Chief Medical Examiner David R. Fowler oversees two deputies and 11 assistant medical examiners, as well as a toxicologists, epidemiologists and several forensic investigators.

The nearly 3-year-old building in which they work was designed without a basement, to help dispel stereotypes. The quick-closing garage doors were also a carefully considered detail.

The center is equipped with a CT scan machine so examiners can study bodies without cutting into them, when religious sensitivities are an issue.

You'd find much of the same equipment in a hospital. Fowler describes the office's work as a "physical exam, one day too late."

The first floor of the building serves as a garage that can be transformed into a mass casualty center. A large classroom on the fourth floor, with banks of desks and communication connections, can become an emergency command center during chemical or biological disasters.

The building was built to accommodate state population projections for 2035.

Inside the entrance, the scene is unremarkable: O, The Oprah Magazine on a glass coffee table, a long row of U-shaped desks, the scent of a dentist's office.

A few doors down comes the tour's first twist.

Room 417, marked "Pathology Exhibit," holds 18 dollhouses of death.

Enclosed in glass, intricate dioramas called "nutshells" re-create actual murder and death scenes from the 1930s and '40s in painstaking detail. Frances Glessner Lee, the millionaire International Harvester heiress who advanced crime scene investigation techniques during the first half of the 20th century, created the miniatures to explore unexplained deaths, re-creating scenes down to tiny burnt cigarettes on the ground.

Lee, who helped establish the department of legal medicine at Harvard — the nation's first academic program in forensic pathology — donated the miniatures to the university. When Harvard planned to throw them away, longtime medical examiner Russell S. Fisher brought them to Baltimore.

Scenes portray a man and woman's bloody bodies still in their bedclothes, with blood spatter flecking the bedroom's wallpapered wall. An inscription explains: "Robert Judson, a foreman in a shoe factory, his wife, Kate Judson, and their baby, Linda Mae Judson, were discovered dead by Paul Abbott, a neighbor."

One model shows how a farmer named Eben Wallace was found hanging in a hay-filled barn. There's a man shot to death in a log cabin, a charred body in a charred home, a body splattered face-down on the sidewalk outside a three-story apartment complex, and the decomposing body of "Mrs. Rose Fishman," found in a pink bathroom in 1942.

The models have been the subject of a documentary. Film director John Waters and musician David Byrne have viewed the exhibit, Goldfarb said. The office keeps them not only for historical purposes, but also to train detectives and forensic investigators on how to read crime scenes.

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