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Dr. Marcella Farinelli Fierro

Year of Birth / Death

b. 1941

Medical School

State University of New York at Buffalo



Career Path

Diagnostic and therapeutic services: Forensic pathology
Education: Teaching
Dr. Marcella Farinelli Fierro


I wanted to help sick people feel better.


In 1994, Dr. Marcella Fierro was appointed chief medical examiner for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Retired from that position in 2008, she also co-directed the Virginia Institute of Forensic Science and Medicine, offering week-long courses on topics such as advanced death investigation to medical examiners, crime scene investigators, judges, law enforcement investigators, prosecutors, forensic scientists, nurses, and others working in forensic science.

Dr. Fierro's skill and dedication inspired mystery writer Patricia Cornwell to write a series of crime novels in which the protagonist, Kay Scarpetta, was modeled after Dr. Fierro. Cornwell knew Dr. Fierro because she had worked as a computer analyst in Fierro's office of chief Medical Examiner. As a result of the widespread success of Cornwell's novels, the work of forensic pathologists has become familiar to the public in a way that would not have otherwise been possible.

Marcella Fierro, graduated cum laude in biology from D'Youville College in Buffalo, New York, and decided to become a physician in 1962. She earned her doctor of medicine in forensic pathology from the State University of New York at Buffalo School of Medicine in 1966. Following an internship and residency at Ottawa Civic Hospital in Ontario, Canada, Dr. Fierro pursued residencies in pathology at the Cleveland (Ohio) Clinic Educational Foundation and at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she became chief resident in Pathology, with a fellowship in forensic pathology in the Department of Legal Medicine at the Medical College of Virginia/Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond from 1973 to 1974. With board certification in Anatomic and Clinical Pathology, Dr. Fierro became chief medical examiner of Virginia, the state's highest position in forensic science, in 1994.

Dr. Fierro has been on the faculty of the Department of Legal Medicine and Pathology at Medical College of Virginia Campus of Virginia Commonwealth University since 1973, was clinical professor of pathology at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, from 1983 to 1992 and again in 1999 to 2002. She was staff pathologist at Richmond's Medical College of Virginia Hospitals from 1975 to 1992, then professor of Pathology at East Carolina School of Medicine in Greenville from 1992 to 1994. She is a member of the American Medical Association and the International Association for Identification, a Fellow of the American Society of Clinical Pathologists, the College of American Pathologists, and the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, among others, and is a past president of the National Association of Medical Examiners.

Dr. Fierro has been a consultant to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Task Force on National Crime Investigation Center, Unidentified Persons and Missing Persons Files, Washington D.C., since 1983, and has served on the board of editors and been a reviewer for The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology since 1979. She has made countless presentations and lectures before academic and professional organizations and has published extensively in peer-reviewed journals. Among her many awards is the Lifetime Achievement Award she received in 2001 the from the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences Medical Alumni Association, State University at Buffalo.

Dr. Fierro has appeared on the Discovery Channel's New Detectives series and on BBC regarding Cornwell's novel From Potter's Field. Dr. Fierro advised Cornwell on all her Scarpetta books, including Postmortem, Body of Evidence, All that Remains, Cruel and Unusual, Body Farm, and From Potter's Field.

Dr. Fierro has added mortality reviews to her forensic work, whereby she characterizes a death and develops a strategy for prevention. She was a legislative resource and testified on a bill amending homicide and malicious wounding statute to increase the penalty for the murder or malicious wounding of a pregnant woman. In providing this information, Dr. Fierro observes, "I am able to perform a public health function and criminal justice service. So I can serve both the living and the dead."

Question and Answer

What was my biggest obstacle?

In the 1950s and 1960s [when I was in high school and college] there were few women physicians. Medicine was an unknown as far as [career] guidance. I just knew I wanted to do it, so I did.

How do I make a difference?

Because I practice forensic pathology, I am able to perform a public health function and criminal justice service. So I can serve both the living and the dead.

Who was my mentor?

For a while in medical school, a wonderful Nazi refugee woman physician, Ellen Eckstein Rudinger was my mentor. She had left Germany and went to school all over again and became a wonderful internist—a wonderful woman.

How has my career evolved over time?

The more I learn the more fun it is.