TV's new glamour job: Medical examiner

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 23, 2013 - 3:22 PM

With more than a dozen TV shows putting medical examiners in the spotlight, students are showing an increased interest in the field.

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Shows such as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and characters such as Dr. Robbins, played by Robert David Hall, left, have given a rise in interest in the medical examiner profession.

By the time he was 7, Hennepin County Medical Examiner Andrew Baker knew he wanted a career in medicine — as seen on TV.

“I watched ‘Quincy’ religiously growing up,” Baker said. “I can honestly say it influenced my career choice.”

The series, which ran from 1976 to 1983, was the first U.S. television series that starred a forensic pathologist. Nearly a dozen TV shows now feature medical examiners, and those dramas (including “CSI,” “NCIS” and “Rizzoli & Isles”) plus a reality show (“Dr. G: Medical Examiner”) may be steering future medical students toward careers in forensic pathology.

The body of proof? Local medical examiners say they’ve seen a dramatic rise in the number of students asking about a life examining the dead.

In the past couple of weeks alone, Dr. Ross Reichard, who works at the Mayo Clinic and serves as medical examiner to five southeastern Minnesota counties, was contacted “out of the blue” by four college juniors who expressed an interest in his field.

Because it takes 12 years of schooling and residencies to become a forensic pathologist, it may be years before anyone knows just how many star-struck viewers actually go into the profession. But interest, at least, is high.

“Now everyone wants to go into criminal justice, get into forensics, because they’ve seen it on TV,” said Dr. Michael McGee, Ramsey County’s medical examiner.

Every week, McGee gets requests from high school students who want tours of the morgue or interviews for projects or are curious about the life of a forensic pathologist. “I ask, ‘Where did you hear about this line of work?’ Invariably they say, ‘A television show.’ ”

Real vs. on-screen

But McGee and others caution that TV depictions aren’t exactly spot-on job descriptions.

“This job smells; it’s dangerous, and you have to be really careful,” said McGee. “The characters on TV never talk about bodies that are positive for hepatitis or HIV.”

Baker said that when he’s on a crime scene, he may be covered in soot, but never in a $3,000 Armani suit, like his TV counterparts. And Dr. Quinn Strobl, Anoka County’s medical examiner, pointed out that unlike forensic pathologists on TV, “we don’t chase down or interrogate suspects.”

“This is not a glamorous profession,” she said. As for following medical examiners on TV, she said, she rarely has time to watch.

Prospective medical students apparently do.

“The shows and the roles of forensic science in the media have affected our practice,” said Mayo’s Reichard. “I do think it highlights a profession that they might otherwise not be exposed to. Maybe the shows help a high school student decide ‘I don’t want to become a forensic pathologist.’ But for other students who love these shows, the thought of becoming a forensic pathologist is more than just a fleeting idea.”

Caroline Cross, a first-year resident out of the University of Minnesota, said her passion for forensics began with a childhood obsession with ancient Egypt and mummies. But she said she also loved the TV show “Unsolved Mysteries.”

“I’m sure students younger than I were — and will be — highly influenced by the forensic shows out there, which is fabulous,” she said. “It’s important that young people gain exposure to this exciting field. Can’t go wrong with free advertising from the entertainment industry.”

A long slog

  • related content

  • Jack Klugman “Quincy M.E.”

  • Hennepin County Medical Examiner Dr. Andrew Baker was influenced to pursue his career by watching “Quincy, M.E.,” inset, as a child. Medical examiners say they have seen a rise in interest in their profession, which they attribute to the popularity of TV shows such as “CSI.”

  • TV medical examiners

    TV Medical examiners

    Dr. R. Quincy, “Quincy, M.E.”: Played by Jack Klugman 1976-83.

    Dr. Elizabeth Rodgers, various iterations of “Law and Order”. Played by Leslie Hendrix early 1990s to 2011.

    Dr. Melinda Warner, “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit”: Played by Tamara Tunie from 2000 to present.

    Dr. Eve Lockhart, “Waking the Dead”: Played by Tara Fitzgerald on the BBC series from 2007-11.

    Dr. Al Robbins, on “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”: Played by Robert David Hall from 2000 to present.

    Dr. Donald (Ducky) Mallard, on “NCIS”: Played by David McCallum from 2003 to present.

    Dr. Maura Isles, on “Rizzoli & Isles”: played by Sasha Alexander, from 2010 to present.

    Dr. Max Bergman, on “Hawaii Five-0”: played by Masi Oka from 2010 to present.

    Drs. Megan Hunt, Kate Murphy, Curtis Brumfield, Ethan Gross, on “Body of Proof”: Played by Dana Delany, Jeri Ryan, Windell Middlebrooks and Geoffrey Arend, respectively, from 2011 to present.

    Paul Levy

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