History of the Medical Examiner's Office
The Bexar County Medical Examiner's Office (BCMEO) was the first Medical Examiner's Office in the State of Texas. On May 6, 1955, the Texas Medical Examiner Act went into effect. Under the law, any Texas County with a population of more than 250,000 could change from a Justice of the Peace System for handling violent and unexpected deaths to a Medical Examiner System. Four counties fell under the provisions of this law (Bexar, Harris, Dallas and Tarrant) though none of them adopted the Medical Examiner System.
On December 5, 1955, an automobile accident occurred four (4) blocks from the residence of one of the Bexar County Justices of the Peace. The police, thinking the victim might still be alive, rushed him to the hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival. They then called the Justice of the Peace in the precinct where the accident occurred. He refused to hold an inquest because he felt the police should not have removed the body. The police then called the Justice of the Peace for the precinct in which the hospital was located. They asked him to hold an inquest. He refused because he was not called first. The body then remained in the hospital from the evening of the day of the accident until noon the next day when a Justice of the Peace was located who agreed to hold an inquest.
This incident was well-publicized by the media with charges of “Prima Donna” actions by the Justices of the Peace. At the next meeting of the Bexar County Commissioners Court, a majority of the Justices of the Peace, the Police Chief, and other City and County officials, recommended that a Medical Examiner System be established. Most of these individuals had made a similar recommendation in the past. It was the strong public opinion in regard to the incident that won approval for the establishment of the Medical Examiner System.
On December 28, 1955, the Bexar County Commissioners Court authorized the County Auditor to include in the 1956 budget monies to be used to defray the salary and office expenses of the Medical Examiner. On April 2, 1956, the Commissioners Court appointed Dr. Robert Hausman as the first Medical Examiner effective July 1, 1956. In addition, Dr. Hausman was authorized an assistant and a secretary. On July 2, 1956, Dr. Hausman received his first case, a suicide, two hours after the opening ceremony. Dr. Ruben Santos was appointed Assistant Medical Examiner in the summer of 1962. Dr. Hausman resigned in 1968 and was replaced by Dr. Santos who was the Chief Medical Examiner until December 4, 1980. Dr. Vincent J.M. Di Maio was appointed Chief Medical Examiner, effective March 1, 1981 and remained in that position until his retirement December 31, 2006. He was succeeded by Dr. Randall Frost, Dr. Di Maio's Deputy Chief Medical Examiner. Dr. Frost became Chief Medical Examiner on January 1, 2007.
In 1956, Bexar County had an estimated population of 710,451. The Medical Examiner's Office consisted of three (3) full-time and six (6) part-time employees. The Medical Examiner, Dr. Robert Hausman, was a qualified Forensic Pathologist who performed both the administrative duties of the office and nearly all the medico legal autopsies. In 1957, the cost to operate the Bexar County Medical Examiner's Office was 4.2 cents annually per capita. In the first 4 months of the Office, 249 deaths (16.5% of all deaths in Bexar County) were investigated, 95 violent deaths and 154 natural deaths, and 131 autopsies were performed. Blood alcohol samples were initially sent to Austin to the State crime lab. On May 15, 1958, the first Toxicologist was hired, with the first toxicology test performed on July 31, 1958 for arsenic. Medical Investigators employed by the Medical Examiner's Office did not begin to go to death scenes until January of 1982.
In 1969, the Administrative Office and Laboratory moved to the Robert B. Green Hospital. It remained there until October 1978 when the BCMEO moved to a new 16,000 sq. ft. building at 600 North Leona. In June 1993, the BCMEO moved to a new 52,000 sq. ft facility on the campus of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, which it shares with the Bexar County Criminal Investigation Laboratory.
The BCMEO Today
The Bexar County Medical Examiner's Office is accredited by the National Association of Medical Examiners. The office operates a fully accredited training program (fellowship) in Forensic Pathology, and provides pathology resident and medical student teaching services for the adjacent University of Texas Health Sciences Center School of Medicine and for the local military pathology training program. The Toxicology Section of the BCMEO is one of only approximately 30 institutions in the United States and Canada accredited by the American Board of Forensic Toxicology. The Toxicology and Medical Investigations Sections of the Office also offer competitive internship opportunities in their respective areas for interested and qualified university students.
The office operations are divided into six sections:
- Medical Examiner
- Office Services
In addition to having jurisdiction over deaths occurring within Bexar County, the Bexar County Medical Examiner's Office also provides forensic autopsy services for many of the smaller, predominately rural counties in the surrounding area of South and Central Texas. In such cases, jurisdiction over the case investigation is retained by the Justice of the Peace in the county of origin, but the BCMEO will provide autopsy services and professional consultation on a fee-for-service basis.
All staff Medical Examiners are required to be board certified in Anatomic and Forensic Pathology by the American Board of Pathology. The Medical Investigators in the office all receive requisite training to obtain Texas Peace Officer certification, and are also required to obtain certification by the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigation during their first two (2) years of employment. Many Toxicology Chemists are certified by the American Board of Forensic Toxicology, and many have advanced degrees in their field. The Chief Toxicologist is required to have a doctoral level degree.
The Bexar County Medical Examiner's Office continues to expand to keep pace with a rapidly growing San Antonio metropolitan area. The goal of the office is to continue to provide the finest in forensic pathology and death investigation services to its citizens, while maximizing efficiency in the expenditures of taxpayer dollars. We strive to provide outreach and training to the local medical community, civic groups, and law enforcement and judicial officials from Bexar and surrounding counties.
To that end, Medical Examiners give frequent presentations on topics of forensic pathology to a variety of local groups. Our staff members also support local interdisciplinary organizations such as Child Fatality Review Teams on a regular basis. The training of young physicians in the field of forensic pathology is an ongoing priority of the office, and medical students, pathology and pediatric residents, and forensic pathology fellows train in the facility. The office frequently hosts forensic pathologists, physicians, and investigators from other countries during visits to the United States to learn about American forensic pathology practice and death investigation.