Wednesday, April 11, 2012


 Sandra Parshall

Remember when fictional mysteries were solved entirely by the use of the sleuth’s little gray cells? That era is fading into the mists of time as forensic technology advances. Authors who set their books in the present have to acknowledge the changes or look like idiots in the eyes of readers.

One of the latest things in forensics is the virtual autopsy – the virtopsy. I’m sure you’ve heard of full-body medical scans for the living that can turn up problems you didn’t know you had. The virtual autopsy is similar, but it converts high-resolution two-dimensional MRI and CT scans into a three-dimensional image. Guided by a Virtobot – a robotic arm mounted above the body – it can examine every inch of a dead person, inside and out, from every angle, without opening the body and possibly damaging or destroying evidence.

A virtopsy can spot things that even the most skilled pathologist might not find. It can show the precise angle and distance from which a bullet was fired. It can help determine time of death up to three days later, as opposed to the first 24 hours using conventional methods. After the initial investment in equipment, each virtual autopsy costs thousands of dollars less than a conventional autopsy and can be used in cultures where cutting open a body after death is viewed as desecration.

The Virtual Autopsy Table was developed jointly several years ago by Sweden’s Norrköping Visualization Centre and the Center for Medical Image Science and Visualization. It is now being used to diagnose living patients in more than a thousand hospitals around the world. It has been used by the U.S. Armed Forces Institute of Pathology to determine the cause of death of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as to gather data to improve body armor. At present, it plays a role in crime-solving more often in Europe than in the U.S., and Dr. Anders Persson, director of CMIV, predicts that standard open-body autopsies may never be totally abandoned. The cost of the  investment in technology and distrust of new methods will undoubtedly slow down acceptance of virtual autopsies in many places.

But sooner or later mystery authors will have to learn to write about this new way of determining cause of death. Some beloved cliches of crime fiction will disappear. No more grizzled medical examiners making jokes as they saw through breast bones. No more rookie cops barely making it to the hallway before throwing up. Somehow examining scans of the victims’ bodies doesn’t deliver the same emotional punch.

I’ll spare you the pictures here, but you can see how the Virtual Autopsy Table works in this YouTube video:

You can see still pictures on this page:

And read more about the technology here:


Sheila Connolly said...

What? You mean CSI might actually have gotten something right?

I'll admit I'm having fun with my WIP because my protagonist is solving murders where no one believes murders exist, and there is no forensic evidence available--only some specialized knowledge that is not immediately obvious. Maybe I'm a throwback.

Diane said...

I can see the virtual autopsy being used in conjuction with the 'old fashioned' autopsy, but not completely by itself. For example, if someone has been shot, they are still going to have to extract the bullet for evidence. Or what about poisons? There will still have to be something other than simply a visual look to find out what poison was used. The future of this use of technology in the crime solving world will be interesting to watch, though.

Diane said...

And, Sheila, looking forward to your new work. It sounds as if you're starting a new series.

Sandra Parshall said...

Virtual autopsy is being used together with traditional autopsy in some places in Europe. The scan would have to be done first, of course. But no, it can't replace toxicology screening. Not yet, anyway. I can imagine a future in which a scan picks up the precise chemical signature of a toxin in the brain or organs.I would love to see what medical and forensic technology will look like in 100 years. All we can be sure of is that it will be different from what we have now.

Julia Buckley said...

Wow--that is really interesting. And I guess I should have guessed this existed, but this is the first time I've heard that term.