Iain West

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The Independent Online

Iain Eric West, forensic pathologist: born 25 April 1944; Junior Assistant Pathologist, Cambridge University, and Registrar in Pathology, Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge 1971-73; Lecturer in Forensic Medicine, St Thomas's Hospital Medical School 1974-78, Senior Lecturer 1978; Senior Lecturer in Forensic Medicine, Guy's Hospital 1978-98, Head of Department 1984-98; twice married (one son, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Hastings, East Sussex 23 July 2001.

It amy be an inept description of a man whose career was devoted to the investigation of death, but Iain West, the forensic pathologist, was larger than life.

Whether in the autopsy room, the conference hall or with his colleagues in the bar, with his usual cigarette between his fingers, he was always the centre of attention. Although some of his conclusions about cases were controversial, he was always respected and much liked by his colleagues. Only a year before his untimely death he was elected to be the next president of the British Association in Forensic Medicine, an honour that was well merited and gave him great pleasure, particularly as the first president of the association, 50 years previously, had been Sir Sidney Smith, the Professor of Forensic Medicine in Edinburgh, West's own university.

Iain West was involved in numerous notorious murders, acting either for the prosecution or for the defence. Many of these he published in 1996, in collaboration with a journalist, Chester Stern, as Dr Iain West's Case Book. It runs the gamut from the death of Robert Maxwell to that of an abused baby, Tyra Henry. His particular forte was to come up with formerly unconsidered explanations of the circumstances of a death, such as when at a second autopsy he found previously undiscovered muscle damage on Maxwell's back, which he thought was suggestive of suicide and that Maxwell must have clung to the boat before letting go.

After his schooling at Carrs Grammar School in Lincoln, West qualified in medicine at Edinburgh in 1967. His first job in academic pathology was at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge in 1971. The Professor of Pathology there at that time was Austin Gresham, a clinical and academic histopathologist with a particular interest in forensic medicine. They wrote an interesting paper together on a fatal case of poisoning from the inhalation of ethyleneimine, and Gresham inspired West to become a dedicated forensic pathologist.

West's first full-time forensic post was as a Lecturer with Hugh Johnson at St Thomas's Hospital, one of the several excellent London departments of forensic pathology which tragically have since been shut down. In 1978 he moved on to Guy's, where Professor Keith Mant was the Head of Department.

West succeeded to the headship in 1984, but London University never gave him the Chair which he so richly deserved. He used to say that this was because he was not primarily research-orientated and did not have a doctorate. The fact that an individual is pre-eminent in his professional work and a brilliant teacher seems to count for little in modern university thinking.

As Head of the Department of Forensic Medicine at Guy's, West was at the forefront of a number of high-profile disaster investigations, including the IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, the London bombings at Harrods and in Hyde Park, and most recently the Paddington rail crash. He threw himself into these tasks with his usual energy and enthusiasm, never afraid to clamber about the rubble or the wreckage and "get his hands dirty".

He was much travelled in his professional life, giving forensic advice and opinions all over the world, including examining overseas victims of terrorism. He visited Iran and Kurdistan on behalf of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group to assess the casualties of chemical warfare. He was much in demand as a lecturer both at home and abroad.

One of West's greatest achievements was the institution of a computerised pictorial database of injuries from homicidal violence. This is still being added to, and the ultimate aim is for it to be available to all other pathologists and police investigating officers as an invaluable source of information and comparison. It has already been used to good effect.

West worked incredibly hard and did not spare his own health. By his early Fifties he started to suffer heart disease and thyro-toxicosis. He carried on working regardless of his illnesses. In 1998, he decided to give up his position at Guy's and went "freelance", although maintaining his contacts with his old department. If this was partial retirement, no one believed it and he continued with a punishing workload. He was succeeded at Guy's by Dr Nat Cary, by coincidence another protégé of Austin Gresham.

Outside his life in pathology, Iain West had a number of interests. He was a devoted rifleman and much fascinated by fire-arms of all sorts. One of his pursuits was hunting wild boar in mainland Europe and he was well known for his prowess in the field. He was also devoted to the garden of his manor house in Sussex.

With Felicia Ann, his first wife, he had a daughter and two sons, one of whom died in childhood. His second wife was another forensic pathologist, Vesna Djurovic, who worked with him at Guy's. She also is held in the highest esteem in the shadowy world of forensic pathology and there were often humorous arguments amongst its practitioners as to which West was the better pathologist.

In the last few years of his life, Iain West became increasingly concerned over the present parlous state of forensic pathology in England and Wales. He was the chair of a recent working party of the British Association in Forensic Medicine which produced a paper "Towards a Unified Forensic Pathology Service for England and Wales". He rightly saw that the present fragmented system, in which the forty or so Home Office pathologists were divided about equally between university departments, the NHS and private practice, was a recipe for trouble.

He had great influence in the quest for improvements in the specialty, and the fight for change will be much weakened by his absence. The Home Office has set up a review of forensic pathology services and it is tragic that West will not be here to see the outcome.

He was struck down out of the blue by a disseminated highly malignant cancer and maintained unbelievable bravery right to the end. That bravery added even more to the respect and admiration held for him by all those who knew him.

Bill Hunt