Lighting up the sky

There is a common misconception that most lightning victims are struck directly by a “bolt” of lightning from the sky. But according to Professor Ryan Blumenthal, a senior specialist forensic pathologist at the University of Pretoria, less than 5% of victims are struck by the lightning flash itself;– most lighting-related deaths and injuries occur as a result of other lightning attachment mechanisms.

  • Professor Ryan Blumenthal
Professor Ryan Blumenthal – MBChB (Pret), MMed (Med Forens) Pret, FC For Path (SA) Dip For Med (SA) PhD (Wits) – is a senior Specialist Forensic Pathologist and Associate Professor in the Department of Forensic Medicine at the University of Pretoria (UP).

He has published widely in the fields of lightning, suicide and other areas involving the pathology of trauma. He published his first article in 2004 and has since published 29 articles. Prof Blumenthal has also been involved in the publication of several textbooks, and has helped generate both national and international standard operating procedures and guidelines. His chief mission is to help advance forensic pathology services both nationally and internationally. His life’s work has been dedicated to education, critical thinking and puzzle-solving.

Forensic pathologists take part in exercises in preventative medicine – in fact, forensic pathology might better be called community and public safety pathology. (Wright RK, Tate LG. Forensic pathology. Last stronghold of the autopsy. Am J Forensic Med Pathol. 1980 Mar;1(1):57-60. doi: 10.1097/00000433-198003000-00009. PMID: 7015831).

No other field in medicine offers the intellectual challenge of forensic pathology, as it requires a working knowledge of diagnosis and treatment in almost every speciality of medicine. It also calls for an understanding of non-medical fields such as criminology, criminalistics, engineering, highway design, police science and a deep understanding of a community – its mores, folkways and religion.

The professor believes that UP is an enabling institution when it comes to research. His research into lightning contributes to society because lightning medicine forms part of wilderness medicine, which is a field of medicine that provides vital emergency care in remote settings. This forms part of environmental health, which encompasses severe weather threats to life and property. Humans interact with electricity almost every day, yet electropathology and lightning research are still emerging as fields of research.

Prof Blumenthal is also involved in collaborative research with several other departments and universities, both locally and internationally. He recently published a book titled Autopsy – Life in the Trenches with a Forensic Pathologist in Africa, which became a non-fiction best-seller in South Africa. He also hosted an eight-part documentary series called Lightning Pathologist, which aired on People’s Weather and was viewed by more than 2 million people. Both the book and the series have had a significant public health impact. Going forward, Prof Blumenthal would like to continue with the public communication of science.

He says he is inspired by those who have won the Nobel Prize. His academic role model is Alfred Nobel, who, in his will, left most of the proceeds of his large private fortune for the establishment of a prize “for the greatest benefit of humankind”.

In terms of what Prof Blumenthal hopes to achieve with his academic work and research, he says, “I hope to continue planting little acorns,” drawing from a quote by mathematician Richard Hamming: “When you’re famous, it is hard to work on small problems. The great scientists often make this error. They fail to continue to plant little acorns from which the mighty oak trees grow. They try to get the big thing right off. And that isn’t the way things go.”

Prof Blumenthal’s hobbies include solving puzzles, playing chess, sleight-of-hand magic, birdwatching, mountain biking and writing novels.
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