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The science of forensics

The science of forensics

TUESDAY, September 18, 2012

Death takes on a life of its own at Thailand's Institute of Forensic Medicine

Bob Dylan’s song, “Death Is Not the End”, plays in an incongruous loop in my head, as I gather up my courage and walk into the Institute of Forensic Medicine (IFM) at Police General Hospital on Bangkok’s Henri Dunant Road, a short walk from bustling Siam Square.

The faded, tired-looking white building looks much like any other government facility in Bangkok but knowing what’s behind the doors sends shivers down my superstitious spine. Wisps of smoke hanging in the air and the heavy scent of incense from the shrines around the building amplify the uneasy atmosphere. 
The Institute of Forensic Medicine is where the dead are delivered when the way in which they have met their maker cannot be easily explained or where foul play is suspected.
Classic fictional detectives like Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple used forensic science as one of their investigating methods while TV series like “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”, “Bones”, “Law & Order”, “Criminal Minds” and “Waking the Dead”, have glamourised the profession.
Thais started to pay attention to forensic science in 1946 when shootings test to examine the path of the bullets and an autopsy were performed to investigate the mysterious death of King Ananda Mahidol. Decades later, the case of Jenjira Ployangunsri, a medical student who was murdered and dismembered by her boyfriend Serm, brought forensic science to the front page of the newspapers while the 2004 tsunami saw forensic scientists from all over the world flying into Thailand to help in the identification of the giant wave’s victims.
Time flies, and people die. But whenever death cannot be properly described, the pathologist steps in with a laser-sharp knife and hand saw to find answers to the cause of death, often as part of an overall police investigation. 
 “Our job is to identify the cause of death,” says Pol Colonel Wiroon Supasingsiripreecha.
“We are involved in blood, crime scene, gunshot residue, fingerprint identification, DNA profiling and more to solve mystifying death.
 “The bodies who arrive at the IFM often come from crime scenes across the country.
“You watch the American series ‘CSI’, and you get the impression that forensic scientists are gun-carrying cops chasing the bad guys. In real life, forensic scientists usually stay in the lab, conducting toxicity and DNA testing. 
“The process of DNA profiling, blood testing and crime scene investigation is the same as what happens in the series, but at a far slower pace,” says Wiroon. “The screenwriter dramatises the cases to make them sensational. Here, at IFM, we see that kind of sensational case only once in 10 years.”
When the body is received, hair samples, fingernails, gunshot residue (if present), fibres, or any other foreign objects found on the surface of the body are collected and noted.
Once the evidence is all collected, the body is undressed and placed face up on the table. A general description of the body like race, sex, hair colour and length, eye colour, approximate age and any identifying features such as scars, tattoos, birthmarks is made. 
“This body arrived this morning,” says a pathologist, who is accompanied by two dieners or morgue assistants, wearing plastic aprons. Lying on the dissection table, a stainless single bed with a large stainless sink at the side, is the body of an unidentified man.
The diener makes the first cut by pressing a sharp knife from one ear across the back of the head to the other. He slides the skin off, like peeling a banana skin, revealing what we don’t often see, a skull soaked in blood. Some visitors grow pale and turn their faces away from a gruesome scene.
“The autopsy always starts from head to toe to drain the pool of blood,” says Wiroon. “If the diener starts the dissection from the stomach, the organs will submerge in blood and makes it hard to see things clearly.”
During the dissection, various organs are examined and weighed and tissue samples are taken. These samples take the form of “slices” that can be easily viewed under a microscope. The content of the stomach is weighed and samples are taken for further examination, which can sometimes be helpful in figuring out the time and cause of death.
“Forensic toxicology is the study of alcohol, drugs and poisons, as well as the manner in which the body responds to their presence,” says Phatraporn Chodchoy, a toxicologist in the Forensic Toxicology division. 
“Tissue samples and contents of the stomach will be examined here to aid the investigation and to look at poisoning and drug use. 
“The contents of the stomach – and in particular their condition at the time of autopsy – can help to estimate the time of death. These bottles are samples from the contents of the stomachs of the bodies. The unnatural bright green, red and blue liquid means these persons consumed toxins, which could have caused their death.”
On my way out of the institute, in the reception area, I notice three women in black sitting in the front row. Whispering to one another, they frequently wipe tears from their red and swollen eyes. 
Death may have brought an end to those lying cold and stiff on the table in the morgue but the feelings of those felt behind are inevitably raw. Forensic scientists could not bring the dead back to life but they can at least bring peace of mind to the deceased’s family and friends by investigating the cause of death, and help bring the wrongdoers to justice. 
  •  For unnatural causes of death like suicides, homicides, animal attacks, accidents and undetermined causes, the body will be sent to Institute of Forensic Medicine to undergo the forensic autopsy.
  •  The diener, the German word for servant, is the name given to the person responsible for handling, cleaning and moving the body.