My mentor, helping us learn even near the end

Dr. Joseph H. Davis, former chief medical examiner in Miami and one of the most highly respected of all forensic pathologists, died March 19. He was 88 years old.

Dr. Davis was chief in Miami from 1957 until he retired in 1996. At first, he did autopsies in a building that had previously been a funeral-home ambulance bay. A tribute in the Miami Herald says “his most important piece of forensic equipment was a fly swatter.”

By the time I met him, Dr. Davis had performed thousands of autopsies. He’d co-written Florida’s medical-examiner law. He’d served on the House Select Committee on Assassinations that investigated the deaths of President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

He was a consultant to the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. He’d taught hundreds – probably thousands – of seminars and published scientific papers beyond count. His mastery of forensic pathology was recognized worldwide.

Dr. Davis, the father of seven children and grandfather/great-grandfather of 36, was a “professional father” to hundreds. He may have trained more forensic pathologists than anyone else in the United States. As a prolific writer and speaker, he shared his knowledge and experience with hundreds of forensic pathologists who trained elsewhere. I doubt there’s a forensic pathologist practicing in this country who hasn’t learned from him.

I learned plenty. I spent two months at Dr. Davis’s office as a visiting resident before I decided to pursue forensic pathology as a career.

Upon learning of his death, forensic pathologists from around the country and around the world expressed their sorrow. Some shared anecdotes. A doctor who was one of Dr. Davis’s first residents told a story illustrative of his mentor’s famous unflappability:

While doing an autopsy on a shooting victim, Dr. Davis was looking for a .22 caliber bullet in the deceased’s lung. He had no X-ray machine, and believed in any case that no “real” forensic pathologist would stoop to the use of X-rays to find a bullet in a lung. As Dr. Davis probed, the tiny bullet “plunked out” and washed down the drain.

“Now what do we do?” the horrified resident asked.

Without comment, Dr. Davis walked to the blackboard, wrote down the weight of the lung and on the next line, “Bullet – consumed by analysis.”

I spoke with Dr. Davis shortly before I left Florida in 2001. Because of ill health, he was preparing to leave his beloved Miami to live near family in Tallahassee. “I’m just nursing home bait now,” he told me with a rueful grin.

In the final issue of Academic Forensic Pathology for 2011, Dr. Davis published five papers. In the 88th year of his life, little more than a year before his death and a decade after he told me he was “just nursing-home bait,” Dr. Davis contributed more to the collective knowledge of forensic pathologists than I’ve done in my professional lifetime. Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, served as La Plata County coroner from 2003-12. She now lives in Florida and Maryland.

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