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Sci-Tech

Forensic doctor reveals secrets of criminal investigation

Germany's best-known forensic doctor, Michael Tsokos, is called to the crime scene every two or three days. His typical working day involves situations that most of us only know from crime novels.

Corpse identification tag on a foot

Autopsies are conducted in only five percent of deaths in Germany

According to Michael Tsokos, crime scene work is an integral part of forensic medicine. However, the way this kind of work looks in television shows is not necessarily an accurate reflection of reality.

For example, experts can't estimate the time of death just by laying a hand on the. "For this, we need equipment and examinations," explained Tsokos.

When people die of unnatural causes in Berlin, they are autopsied at the Charite hospital and medical school, where Tsokos works as the head of the Institute for Forensic Medicine - the largest of its kind in Germany. Two thousand autopsies are carried out here each year, although, according to Tsokos, the autopsy rate is relatively low in Germany.

Dr. Michael Tsokos at the scene of a crime

Murder or suicide? Tsokos will find out

Only five percent of those who die in Germany are subjected to a post-mortem examination. In Scandinavian countries, the rate is four times higher, which would suggest that some acts of homicide probably remain undiscovered in Germany.

Autopsy samples, such as blood, are examined at the Charite institute to determine whether the death was caused by suicide or murder.

In the case of murder, said Tsokos, there are interesting ethnic differences: "In Germany, it's mostly stab wounds and only rarely bullet wounds. In the USA, on the other hand, bullet injuries are the most common in homicide cases. In Asia, especially India, poisoning with pesticides and insecticides is prevalent."

Debunking common myths

Tsokos is not only Germany's best-known forensic doctor, but also a bestselling author. In his books, he aims to dispel myths about his job.

"Three totally false ideas about forensic doctors are propagated through TV shows," said Tsokos. "Firstly, that we are pathologists. A pathologist and a forensic doctor have about as much in common as an eye specialist and a gynecologist - in other words, no more than a medical degree."

A women in a hospital gown and gloves stands in front of a male corpse lying on a bed

Forensic dramas on TV are not entirely realistic

The second myth, according to Tsokos, is that the identification of family members takes place at the forensic institute: "We have no contact with the relatives." And the third myth is "that we run around with weapons and arrest suspects."

Investigating homicides is only one part of Tsokos' job. The other is identifying corpses. Five years ago he was sent to Thailand by the German government to identify victims of the tsunami disaster there. This type of identification "is usually done using the teeth or hair," he said.

The work meant doing a large number of autopsies outdoors, which for some might seem like a near-impossible task, but which for Tsokos was professionally appealing - both "the task and the unknown."


On the other hand, what Tsokos finds hard to bear is dying, cancer-stricken children and patients who die in the course of medical treatment.

No bad dreams

At 42, Tsokos has practiced his profession for 15 years, but says he's not overly burdened by what he does.

Forensic doctors in a city street transport a corpse on a hospital stretcher with wheels

Forensic medicine means confronting death on a daily basis

"I don't take my work home with me and I don't dream about it at night," said Tsokos. "The things I see, I see in a scientific context."

Still, Tsokos is constantly confronted with death, suicide and murder - existential issues that can't just be glossed over.


"I live more intensively and enjoy the time with my family much more than before," explained Tsokos. "But the job hasn't changed my view of society. I haven't become a misanthrope who thinks that humans are inherently bad - definitely not."

Charite hospital was founded in 1710 as a house for victims of the plague. The celebration of its 300th anniversary kicks off this year, on October 14.

Author: Mabel Gundlach (ew)

Editor: Kate Bowen

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