An Examined Life
Roughly 14,000 people die in Allegheny County in a normal year. While most of those deaths are a result of natural causes, some require further investigation by a medical examiner. An examiner’s job is to decide whether an autopsy is needed and to determine the cause of death. Dr. Ed Strimlan, Hoodridge Drive, made a career out of doing that. He now teaches forensic science at Point Park University.
It may sound cliché, but during his time as a medical examiner, every day was different.
“You might have a motor vehicle accident one day and then the next day you might be at the county jail,” he says. “You might be in a fire case or you might be dealing with someone in the river.
“The questions you’re going to ask for a vehicle accident are different than a hanging. Hanging is different than (finding) a person in the water. There are so many different angles to go to, and it really takes a lot of experience in cooperating with everybody, because nobody sees the same thing.”
The most unusual case Strimlan worked was the 1994 crash of USAir Flight 427, with no survivors and 132 dead. Even though the crash happened in Hopewell Township in Beaver County, Strimlan worked double shifts—his regular work for Allegheny County and then a second shift in Beaver—for three weeks, recovering material at the site and working in the hangar to identify the crash victims.
A few years ago, Strimlan was approached by several universities to design a forensic science course. Eventually that led to him developing a full four-year program at Point Park University. He makes it a scientific experience with courses in biology, chemistry and math. The school has a floor in one of its buildings that is a simulated forensic environment.
The first year of the program a student learns about evidence and how to distinguish between real and false forms of it. They learn to take pictures. In the second year, they learn how to process the evidence found by looking for errors, fibers and other things. The third year they distinguish different forms of death. The final year focuses on ethics. All along the way, Strimlan keeps the students engaged with stories from his more than three decades with the county.
“Students like to hear stories,” Strimlan says. “I do a lot of talks for different organizations and police departments, and they like to hear my stories. And we add that.”
Strimlan says forensic science is a great field to get into, with a number of sub-specialties and a work environment that affords equal opportunity. There is one caveat, however.
“Everybody who gets involved with it soon understands that it’s not like television.”