Hallux’s Pathology Puzzles: Pathology Puzzlers

Ask the Pathologist!

One of Professor Hallux’s favourite TV shows is one called ‘Time Cop Crime Stop‘. In the show, the Crime Cops solve all types of mysteries by looking at the evidence and asking questions. Nurse Nanobot isn’t that impressed by it though – she’s far more excited by ‘Robot Wars’ for some reason!

Now, there’s a type of medicine that is all about solving puzzles – it’s called pathology!


When you think about pathology, you might think it’s all about finding out what happened to dead bodies. Well that’s a type of Pathology called Forensic Pathology, and there are lots more different types!

A Pathologists job is to find out what has happened or what is happening to a body, and come up with something called a diagnosis. When you’re poorly, you go and see your doctor. Doctors rely on the knowledge and diagnostic skills of Pathologists to help work out what’s wrong and make you better.

At the Royal College of Pathologists, you can ask some real Pathologists all kinds of questions all about Pathology! You can ask a questions about diseases, what it’s like to be a Pathologist, and even what a Pathologist does in their spare time! You can email them at [email protected] with your question.

Here are some questions Pathologists have answered already! 


When you have a blood test, why do they sometimes take blood in several different tubes?

  • Well, when you have a blood test, the chances are that your doctor has asked for several different tests to be performed at the same time.
  • Different tests may require several samples because different bits of the blood are tested. Also, some tests may need blood that is clotted, while other tests may need blood that has had a chemical added to stop it clotting. The different sorts of tube are often a particular colour.


Does everyone have an autopsy when they die?

  • No. Only about one in every five people has an autopsy after their death.
  • The most common reason for an autopsy is that the cause of death is not known. Perhaps the person who died had not seen a doctor for a long time, or their death was sudden and unexpected or was being investigated by doctors but a diagnosis had not yet been made. It’s in situations this – where there is a puzzle or a mystery about what’s happened – this is when Autopsies are performed.
  • Autopsies are carried out by specially trained doctors called histopathologists who have to study for over 10 years before they can be forensic pathologists. They’re brilliant at cracking the case.


Our genes carry lots of information about us, so is there a genetic test that can tell what diseases I’m going to develop in the future?

  • It is possible to test for certain conditions because the evidence is right there inside the genes in our cells. But most diseases are caused by a mixture of causes, so it’s not quite so easy.


Why don’t antibiotics work against colds and flu?

  • Antibiotics are drugs that kill or affect the growth of bacteria. They are selective poisons, with different antibiotics killing different bacteria.
  • Bacteria are single-celled organisms that cause infections such as syphilis and tuberculosis.
  • Colds and flu are caused by viruses, not bacteria. Viruses are not cellular organisms and are not affected by antibiotics.
  • Taking antibiotics when you have a viral infection can do more harm than good. It will have no effect on the infection and may mean that antibiotics won’t work if you do have a bacterial infection in future.


Are test tube babies made in test tubes?

  • ‘Test tube babies’ is a term used to describe babies born following in vitro fertilisation (IVF), a form of assisted conception used when people can’t conceive naturally.
  • In vitro is Latin for ‘in glass’, and refers to the fact that fertilisation takes places outside the body in the lab.
  • Shallow glass or plastic dishes called Petri dishes are usually used, rather than test tubes. Eggs and sperm are mixed in the dish and any resulting embryos are placed in the mother’s womb, where they grow into babies and are born as usual.
  • Clinical embryologists are the pathology scientists involved in IVF and other forms of assisted conception.


Why can’t some people eat bread?

  • Coeliac disease is a condition where people are intolerant of the protein gluten, which is found in wheat and other cereals. If they eat gluten, the small intestine reacts by becoming inflamed. It also loses its finger-like villi, which are essential for absorbing nutrients from our food. People with coeliac disease therefore become malnourished, even if they are eating a healthy diet.
  • Coeliac disease is usually diagnosed from a biopsy, which involves a pathologist examining a tiny sample of small intestine under the microscope. There is no treatment for coeliac disease other than avoiding foods that contain gluten. These include bread, pasta, pizza and many other foods that contain flour. Gluten-free foods have been developed and are available in most supermarkets.

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