OBITUARY: Derek Carson, forensic pathologist who dealt with horrors of Troubles

Dr Derek Carson 'loved the mystery' of unnatural or unexplained deaths, said his son Nicholas
Dr Derek Carson 'loved the mystery' of unnatural or unexplained deaths, said his son Nicholas

Every time paramilitaries unleashed a bomb or a gun attack, there was a strong chance that Derek Carson would have been on the scene afterwards.

He spent decades as part of the small team of forensic pathologists working across Northern Ireland, tasked with the grim business of cataloguing the injuries of the dead.

Born into a Portadown farming family on July 16, 1934, his mother had died of a brain tumour when he was very young.

His education began at a primary school in Loughgall, then continued at Portadown College, before he went on to study medicine at Queen’s University Belfast.

It was there he met well-known physician Sir John Henry Biggart.

A key figure in his day in the field of pathology, he offered him a job.

His son Nicholas said that he took up the offer partly because Sir John’s stature was such that to turn him down may have proved “unwise”.

He began his work in the early 1960s, looking into unnatural or unexplained deaths.

“He loved the mystery,” said son Nicholas.

“He loved the investigative aspects to discovering what the cause of death was.”

In a role which Nicholas likened to the lead character on the show Silent Witness, he was sometimes called to the site of notorious crimes.

Among the killings he helped solve was that of Thomas Niedermayer, who had been missing for years after being kidnapped by the IRA.

The businessman was eventually found after investigators unearthed remains under a rubbish tip in west Belfast. He was identified thanks to his skull.

Dr Carson was part of a three-man team, covering the whole Province, and he would often drive up to 40,000 miles per year, travelling from death scene to death scene.

The team worked around-the-clock, and sometimes had to handle up to a dozen post-mortems per day.

Sometimes the family would pitch in to help.

“As children, we used to take the notes for him,” said Nicholas. “All five of the children did that.”

He himself had started helping at age 16, and asked if it perturbed him, he said: “Not really. We just did it.”

Given his critical role in helping crack cases, the NIO had installed an alarm at his home.

However, it was never needed. Nicholas suggests he was never targeted because – as a medical man – he was viewed as independent.

Among other high-profile cases, he was also called on to examine IRA hunger strikers who had died, and also victims of the Omagh bomb.

Asked what his reaction was to being surrounded by such cases, Nicholas said: “Obviously he was upset by the death and carnage, like everybody else was. It’s obviously a very difficult job to do unless you can detach yourself.

“To my knowledge, he never came home and vented his feelings. But he was that sort of a person. A very rock-solid individual who did what he was asked to do.”

He was accorded an OBE in 1999. He also retired the same year, with the title of Deputy State Pathologist.

In retirement, he continued carrying out consultancy work right until his death.

In addition to his principal work, he had also lectured in pathology at Queen’s for 25 years.

He had also been a 40-year member of the TA, serving with the 204 General Hospital at Fortwilliam Road, and going on to become its commanding officer for three years until 1991.

He was also honorary colonel of 253 Field Ambulance Regiment.

Outside of work, he had a passion for black-and-white photography, home-made wine (especially blackberry), and had also tried his hand at bee-keeping.

He had been living in Newtownabbey at the time of his death on April 2, following a battle against bladder and bowel cancer since 2012.

His funeral was on Saturday, April 4, at St Patrick’s Anglican church, Jordanstown, where he was a regular attendee. He was 78.

He was cremated, and his ashes will be laid at the churchyard.

He is survived by Nicholas and other children Melanie, Colin, Bruce and Kerry, plus 13 grandchildren and sister Doris Magee. His wife Avis (whom he had married in 1959) died in 2004.