How we should deal with John Doe

BMJ 2003; 327 doi: (Published 07 August 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:349
  1. Prabha Desikan (, associate professor of microbiology
  1. Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre, Bhopal, India

    It was a tiny news item on the fifth page of a national daily in India. Not designed to make headlines, it could have been easily missed. It consisted of only three sentences and described a woman, Chanti Mallamma, who had petitioned a minister of state to trace her husband, Chanti Malliah, who had left for Saudi Arabia five years ago and had not been heard of since.

    The story took me back to when I was working as a microbiologist at a large tertiary care hospital in Saudi Arabia. One day I received samples for bacterial culture from a patient whose name, age, nationality, and history were not known—a regular “John Doe,” to use the US term to describe unidentified people. He was found unconscious on a road and brought to the hospital. Physical examination and investigations were not conclusive, and a diagnosis could …

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