‘I’m a nice bloke doing a terrible job with care and compassion,’ says pathologist Dr Richard Shepherd, ahead of York talk

Dr Richard Shepherd: Pathologist, professor, lecturer, author, apiarist and aviator, presenting Unnatural Causes at York Theatre Royal on Thursday and Leeds City Varieties on Friday

FORENSIC pathologist Dr Richard Shepherd is unearthing Unnatural Causes on his 22-date autumn tour, visiting York Theatre Royal on Thursday and Leeds City Varieties the next night.

Already this autumn, his latest true crime television series, The Truth About My Murder, has been running on CBS Reality since September 21, wherein he revisits high-profile cases from Great Britain and the United States of America.

“I know how the living send out signals which are designed to appeal to our hearts. But the dead can only tell the unadorned truth. I listen to their stories,” he says.

Now retired, Dr Shepherd, 69, has worked for the Home Office on multiple cases and was the forensic expert for the Bloody Sunday inquiry, the Hungerford Massacre and the death of Princess Diana, also advising on the management of British fatalities following 9/11 in New York.

He has performed more than 23,000 autopsies and is a detective in his own right,solving the mysteries of countless sudden and unexplained deaths. He has faced serial killers, natural disasters, perfect murders and freak accidents. 

His evidence has put killers behind bars, freed the innocent and turned open-and-shut cases on their heads. Yet all this has come at personal cost, having been diagnosed with diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after suffering flashbacks.

Heading out on tour from Wednesday (12/10/2022) to November 11 with Unnatural Causes, a title shared with his book that spent ten weeks on the Sunday Times bestseller chart, Dr Shepherdtells the stories of the cases and bodies that have both fascinated and haunted him the most.

Additionally, he will explain his admiration for the complexities of the human body and examine how he has lived a life steeped in death. This week’s York and Leeds audiences can take part in solving a real-life crime scene mystery too when he invites their involvement.

Why pick pathology as a career choice, Dr Shepherd? “Really, it’s quite simple,” he says. “It was a Damascene moment. A schoolmate’s dad was a GP and when he smuggled a book on forensic medicine into the classroom, like any curious 14-year-old boy, I thought that’s amazing and took it home,” he recalls.

“My dad was quite an ‘anorak bloke’, and instead of saying ‘that’s disgusting, you shouldn’t be interested in that’, he said, ‘you have to work hard if you’re interested in that’, and I ended up going to medical school. All because of that moment at Watford High School.” 

Dr Shepherd trained as a doctor at St George’s Hospital medical school from October 1971, qualifying in 1977. It was a great place to be, at that time a very small school at Hyde Park Corner – it’s since moved to Tooting – with a very forensic component to it.

“I oscillated a bit around pathology. Bizarrely, I really liked obstetrics, but came back to qualifying in forensic pathology.”

Thirteen years later, in 1984, he was fully qualified, studies completed in Gower Street. “Most of those years, you’re being paid, remember, which makes it easier to study,” says Dr Shepherd, who took up a post at Guy’s Hospital in 1987. “It’s important to say that though I studied for 13 years, that’s the usual time for most consultants, but you do have a clear finishing point of a fellowship at the Royal College of Pathologists.”

Pathologist, author, professor and lecturer, Dr Shepherd spread his wings into television presenting (The Death Detective, Autopsy: The Last Hours Of…, Murder, Mystery And My Family) and theatre tours.

“I always did a lot of lecturing, mainly to medical student groups, but also to Rotary groups sometimes, and then did The Death Detective. It was going to be called Dr Dick, bit it was pointed out, ‘No, that might not be appropriate’!

“I wanted to not only tell the story of a case, putting the jigsaw pieces together, but also to say, ‘here is the face of forensic pathology’,” says Dr Shepherd. “I’m a nice bloke doing a terrible job with care and compassion.”

Looking back over the years, Dr Shepherd says: “I think society has changed. Often people don’t talk about ‘death’ now but about ‘passing’ and ‘passing on’, and we’re beginning to fudge the process; I suspect it’s becoming more hidden,” he says.

“I had to have my 14-year-old Jack Russell put down in my arms, and I thought it was important to feel that emotion in death, whereas now people are turning funerals into a bit of a media presentation with My Way and You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Dr Shepherd does not watch such series as Silent Witness. “Not because I dislike them, but because they are so far from what I know to be the truth, like not showing bits of a brain. The reality is not there, but then people think that what they see on TV must be close to reality, but then it happens to them and it’s not like it is on the TV,  and it’s a double blow. Deaths are sanitised, even in Casualty,” he says.

“A lot of people love how the forensic pathologists looks very clever on Silent Witness, and it all looks very exciting, but the reality is I don’t go around arresting people.”

How does he transfer his forensic expertise to the theatre stage? “I can talk about how I see things in my profession, but I can also talk about more about emotions; how the body has failed; how I can detect injuries and how they’ve been caused,” says Dr Shepherd.

“I have to be very careful for it not to be like a forensic lecture that I would give to students about how they would deal with injuries. On this tour, I’ll bring an imitation ‘body’ on stage with a knife sticking out of the chest. It’s a theatrical moment, and it’s always great to hear the audience gasp, so it’s close to reality, with no fudging. It’s the truth, but not the absolute truth because that’s too hard. The reality is, it’s that thing of life and death and going from one to the other.”

You may have seen Dr Shepherd contributing to Channel 4’s documentary Investigating Diana: Death In Paris on the 25th anniversary of her death in August. “It’s one of those deaths that I can feel viscerally, as many of us do,” he says, but he does not buy into any conspiracy theories. “She should have put her seat belt on.”

This month, his forensic mind is on his Unnatural Causes tour. “It’s the starting pointy of every report I’ve written: ‘Death is not due to natural causes’. ‘Death is due to unnatural causes’. It’s a phrase I have used all my professional life.”

Dr Richard Shepherd, Unnatural Causes, York Theatre Royal, Thursday; Leeds City Varieties Music Hall, Friday, both 7.30pm. Box office: York, 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk; Leeds, 0113 243 0808 or leedsheritagetheatres.co.uk .

CBS Reality’s The Truth About My Murder is available on Freeview (67), Sky (146), Virgin (148) and Freesat (135). From a state-of-the-art laboratory, with ground-breaking digital technology, viewers will hear directly from the victim as Dr Shepherd uncovers the truth behind these perplexing crimes as told through the victims’ bodies.

These victims’ narratives are often re-written, hidden, manipulated, weaponised and concealed by their evil killers. In each case, Dr Shepherd will “separate fact from fiction and ensure the truth always prevails”.

Did you know?

Dr Richard Shepherd is an apiarist (beekeeper) and aviator (with a private pilot’s licence since 2004).

Did you know too?

His latest book, The Seven Ages Of Death, explores what death can teach us about living.