Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Forensic pathology course a lesson in Grossology 101

The giant image of a decomposing human face looking down from the overhead screen might be the first indication that this is not the usual biology class. Or maybe it’s the real human skull on the desk next to the professor.

Welcome to Forensic Pathology, a class offered in alternate years by University of Denver Professor Phil Danielson. Try not to get grossed out.

“I can’t eat anything during class,” says senior molecular biology major Tiffany Lunney. “I make sure to get something before.”

Danielson’s class features lectures — and the accompanying photographs — about decomposing bodies, blood spatter, knife wounds, ligature marks, fingerprints, DNA charts, skulls, bones, and everything else involved in determining the manner and time of death. And there’s the process of identifying the dead, often complicated by factors such as time and even something called saprophagy — that’s when a body gets eaten by anything from bacteria to bugs to the family pet.


“When I started teaching this class, “CSI” was just getting started, people were watching that and getting interested. I wanted to offer a class that taught students a bit about what really happens,” Danielson says. “Students were telling us they wanted biology classes that were ‘human-relevant,’ and this seemed like something they would be interested in.”

Danielson says he doesn’t expect that all, or any, of the 30 or more students in his class are going to be professional pathologists. But he says there are important things to talk about and understand that translate to various professions. Some of the information could even save a life some day.

“By looking at wound patterns you can detect things like child abuse, spouse abuse, elder abuse,” Danielson says. “Most of these students won’t see a corpse come in, but if you’re a teacher, a social worker, a doctor and you see some of these same wounds and recognize them, maybe you can prevent it from getting to that point.”

Lunney, who hopes to study law and work in medically related legal fields, says gaining an understanding of how the forensic process works is a good foundation to have.

Danielson, an expert in forensic DNA, spent about a year researching to prepare for the class, which covers everything from bullet wounds to the ethical debate about defining death.

“I find the work in forensics tremendously fascinating,” he says. “And it’s always evolving.”

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