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