UK forensic pathologist teaches in the classroom and beyond
Dr. Greg Davis is a teacher – of students, of peers, of listeners and of juries. The many hats he wears have taken him around the world and back to his beloved Kentucky, all in service to the Hippocratic Oath and his chosen profession of forensic pathology.
There’s a joke that pathologists are asocial, more comfortable with a microscope than with people. This is certainly not true of Davis, whose intellectual skill and facility with others make him an ideal teacher in all walks of life.
Davis was raised just a stone’s throw from the University of Tennessee’s Knoxville campus. Determined to get away from home for college, he visited the University of Kentucky and fell in love instantly.
“I felt an immediate sense of place here,” he recalls.
Four years later and with a bachelor’s degree in hand, Davis returned to his home state for medical school and bounced back to Kentucky for a residency and fellowship at the University of Louisville. His first faculty appointment was at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
“I loved it there and told my boss that the only thing that would compel me to leave was an offer from the University of Kentucky.”
Five years later, the call came.
Teaching at UK
Davis settled in to academic life at UK, which he adores for its intellectual challenges and its obligation to share that knowledge with others, especially students.
“Medical students are the professional equivalent of a 2-year-old, and that’s a good thing,” he says. “They are always asking ‘Why?’ which ultimately makes them better doctors and prevents professors like me from becoming calcified.”
He also helped start UK’s Division of Forensic Consultation Services, which provides expert opinion on criminal and civil cases around the world. During the year of its inception in 2005, the division consulted on 30 cases. This year they are at 250 annually and counting.
Davis has consulted on cases as far away as Singapore, but his most memorable case was much closer to home.
In Sevierville, Tennessee, Liz Ogle was charged with murder when a cancer-stricken woman in her care died under what authorities and family members thought were suspicious circumstances, particularly since the patient left the bulk of her estate to Ogle.
Davis was able to prove that the medical examiner’s work in the case was not scientifically sound, and Ogle was freed after 27 months and one day in prison.
Ogle stood outside the courthouse clinging to Davis’ hand after the directed verdict. “Today, we are all Wildcat fans,” she told him tearfully. She still sends him a Christmas card every year.
“My second worst nightmare is if a mistake of mine let a murderer go free,” he says. “But the thought of sending someone to prison for a crime they didn’t commit is by far the worst thing I could do.”
Ever the teacher, Davis used the case for the basis of a joint grand rounds with the UK College of Law to teach students the pitfalls of irresponsible testimony.
Teaching through the media
More recently, Davis was brought in for expert opinion in the case of Darlie Routier, who is on death row for the murder of her two children. “The Last Defense,” a seven-episode ABC docu-series that launched on June 12, chronicles the case.
Executive producers Vanessa Potkin and Aida Leisenring said that Davis provided a much-needed independent review of the pathology evidence in the Routier case.
“We knew in submitting the materials to Dr. Davis that we would get a reliable, objective assessment from one of the nation’s leading pathologists — and that he would call it as he sees it,” they said. “All too often, forensic scientists function as an arm of law enforcement and provide testimony that is as much advocacy as it is science. We saw Dr. Davis’ review as a pivotal component of the search for truth.”
Davis became a teacher of a different sort in 2006 when he was tapped to host “Dr. Greg Davis On Medicine” for WUKY radio.
From that pulpit he has been able to educate the public on health and medicine, interviewing everyone from the executive director of the British Medical Association (which had recently banned the wearing of neckties) to a registered dietitian who would eventually become his wife.
Connecting back to the Hippocratic Oath
Davis is acutely aware that his specialty comes with a good dose of ethical responsibility.
“The very word, ‘forensic,’ comes from the Latin ‘forensis’ which means ‘in the public eye,'” he explains. “Furthermore, the Hippocratic Oath requires me to share my knowledge ‘with those who are to follow,’ which obviously means younger physicians in training but also loosely applies to the lay public.”
However, Davis doesn’t see that as a license to preach or judge, referring back to the Hippocratic Oath, perhaps the western world’s earliest expression of medical ethics.
“The oath tells physicians that it’s OK to say, ‘I don’t know,” he says. “So, when I’m consulting on a case I simply bring my knowledge to the table to help solve a mystery that might best be unraveled by the legal and judicial professions.”
Davis feels an intense gratitude to UK for giving him the space to develop his interests, both as student and as teacher.
“I’ve used my training to tell a story, whether it be in the classroom, the autopsy suite, the courtroom, or on public radio,” he says. “What other job would allow you to do all those things?”