SOME people might think that examining dead bodies for a living would be the worst of jobs, but for Ireland’s first female state pathologist, Professor Marie Cassidy, it’s only a “small part” of how she spends her time.
For instance, her childhood dream was to be a ballet star, so she’s now taking lessons for an hour every week.
Addressing students at the University of Limerick recently, to launch FESTA, a European research project aimed at exploring women in the workplace, the Glasgow-born mother of two recounted a tale of how one of her female colleague’s male boss told her that forensic pathology was all “sex, drugs and violence”.
“And, that’s the good part,” Cassidy joked. “I am in a privileged position as I am in a career that I love, and because of that I do feel that I have some kind of a duty to try and entice young people to come into the sciences and the technologies.”
Cassidy admitted to having a love for the morbid side of life and that her current role has taken her to gruesome scenes all over the world.
“So, over the years, I have had the opportunity to work with a lot of people, particularly being asked to go out to places like Bosnia and work with the UN, dealing with the war crimes.
“What started off as being a general interest in forensics and pathology has now opened it up for myself. So, I have got into areas that I never thought I would get into.” There are only three people working the field of forensic pathology in Ireland, and only a little over 100 in the UK.
“In fact, in this country, it’s not even recognised,” said Cassidy. “And we’ve been trying with the medical council, to recognise us as a specialty in its own right, because until we do so, we can’t start to train our own forensic pathologists.
“And what will happen, in very few years actually, pathologists who are in post now will start to retire and we’re going to be back in the same position when Jack [John] Harbison was here that there’s nobody coming in behind us. So were going to have to recruit from outside of Ireland again.”
Admitting her mother would have preferred if she had married a rich doctor, Cassidy said forensic pathology never formed part of her childhood ambitions.
“From an early age I had my own dreams. It was never to be a forensic pathologist. I wanted to be a ballet dancer. I could just see myself in my little leotard and my ballet shoes and I pestered my mother until she was demented; I had to go to ballet classes.”
However, after finding a role in pathology through science Cassidy has carved out a career spanning 30 years in the field.
She explained she had no problem conducting post mortems on people. “I wasn’t squeamish and I thought it was fascinating.
“It changed my life. It’s absolutely fascinating. I had gone to the dark side of it. I didn’t know anything about it at all beforehand.
“It was a world away from what I was used to dealing with. It was an alien world, full of death and destruction, sadness and despair, a lot violence, of course, and a kind of general emptiness, strangely enough.”
She said she has never met any prejudice because she was a woman but that her bubbly personality didn’t go down well with academics in her field.
“It wasn’t that I was female; there were plenty of females there. It was because I wasn’t the right type of female.”
Through her job she has turned into something of a sleuth herself and sees her work as bringing some form of comfort to families who have lost loved ones through murder and horrific accidents.
“They were looking for answers. I wanted to try and get some answers for them. And now, 30 years on, I still hope I’ll get some answers for some of these people, something to help them move on.”
She said her work was always considered not to be female-friendly “because people thought that women didn’t want to go wandering through fields in the middle of the night, paddling through litres of blood. I found it all fascinating.”
Before taking over from John Harbison as Ireland’s State Pathologist in 2004, Cassidy was also the first female full-time forensic pathologist in the UK.
As a trailblazer herself, she is anxious to encourage young females to set their sights high. “There are women at the top in Ireland. There’s Sheila Willis, and she’s the director of the Forensic Science Laboratory in the Phoenix Park. And you also have Máire Whelan, who’s the attorney general.
“There’s no bias here if you’re good at what you do. And if you put yourself forward. So that’s what we must do — women must put themselves forward. Think about it. Think about the options. Go for the options.”
“I didn’t become a ballet dancer. I became something much better. But on Wednesday nights I get an opportunity to put on my ballet shoes.
“I’m maybe more of a dying swan than the sugar plum fairy, but at least for that hour every week I get to dream.”
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