My teacher, a towering figure in forensic pathology and New York City‘s chief medical examiner for a quarter century including on Sept. 11, has died. Dr. Charles S. Hirsch was 79.
I met Hirsch in 1984 during my general pathology residency. I planned to be a hospital pathologist but wanted some elective training in forensic pathology, so I signed up for a conference at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. Hirsch, who had an extremely logical way of thinking and speaking reminiscent of Mr. Spock in “Star Trek,” was one of the lecturers.
I saw from the excellence of his talk that any chance to learn from him would be a privilege, so I wrote to Hirsch and asked to spend two months in his office as a visiting resident. He agreed, and I was delighted. After the two months, he offered me a forensic pathology fellowship, and I was ecstatic. When a staff position opened up during my fellowship, he gave me the job. I abandoned my plans for hospital practice.
Hirsch taught me more about medicine and forensic pathology than I can remember, along with life lessons I’ll never forget.
“A difference, to be a difference, has to make a difference,” he said. Focus on what’s important. Don’t quarrel with your colleagues over trivia.
“Very few people have 20 years’ experience,” he said. “Most have one year’s experience repeated 20 times.”
Every dead body should add to your own experiential data base. Pay attention to anatomical variations so you’ll know what’s normal. Compare disease and injury patterns from organ to organ and from case to case so you won’t be fooled by the atypical.
Hirsch gave his students a thorough education in forensic pathology, but he always stressed that science alone was inadequate. Too much reliance on autopsy findings and laboratory tests coupled with too little emphasis on circumstantial and historical information and common sense could easily result in “a denial of reality in the name of objectivity.”
When Hirsch made a mistake, he owned up without equivocation. In one of the morning staff meetings, he said something that one of the trainees questioned. Nobody else was sure who was right. The meeting adjourned with no consensus.
When Hirsch took his seat the next morning, he immediately turned to the trainee. “I looked up what you said yesterday, and you were right,” he said with a rueful grin. “What’s even more difficult for me to admit is that I was wrong.”
When Hirsch differed with another doctor’s opinion, he was unfailingly courteous. “People can disagree without being disagreeable,” he said.
I was in Hirsch’s office one day and overheard his end of the conversation when he took a call from someone who had taken an action he bitterly opposed. The brief chat concluded cordially with Hirsch saying, “Well, I just thought it might have been better if you had (done thus and so) instead.”
Hirsch hung up the phone, turned to me with an icy smile and said, “Carol, if you feel like calling somebody an S.O.B., wait until after you hang up.”
I treasure my years in Dr. Hirsch’s office.
Through pithy sayings and personal example, he taught his students candor and courtesy, respect for the dead, compassion for the living and the importance of professional humility. I wish every forensic pathologist living and yet to come could be privileged, as I was, to work with and learn from him.
I’m so sorry that he’s gone.
Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, served as La Plata County coroner from 2003-12. She now lives in Florida and Maryland. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.