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Monday, 14 May 2018

Forensic medicine: where history and science collide

Scene of the murder at 37 Henry Street, Church Coppenhall, drawn in April 1887. The National Archives, ASSI 65/15, Regina v. Thomas Henry Bevan, Cheshire, 1887

I research the history of crime and forensic medicine in Britain, especially England and Wales, since about 1700, with a particular focus on the period up to the First World War. I’m especially interested in the role played by doctors in solving crimes and how that changed over time, given the increasing presence of lawyers and police in the criminal justice system. Because these links are most visible in cases of violent crime, I tend to spend a lot of time reading first-person accounts of murder and other grisly goings-on. This might sound rather grim, but really it’s not!

Choosing the history of forensic medicine was a lucky accident, really. My original intention was to become a chemist, but it didn’t take long for me to realise that although the scientific information I’d gained from my undergraduate degree might be interesting, it wouldn’t make for a rewarding research career. But it led me to the history of chemistry and from there I began to explore the history of toxicology – a science that has always been closely associated with poisoning crimes. From there it became obvious that doctors, rather than chemists, were always there or thereabouts when there’d been a murder – somebody had to examine the victim and provide a report for the courts, and usually it was a local practitioner. This led me to explore notions of expertise, a subject of broad interest to historians, criminologists and lawyers. And the forensic focus of my research means that my training as a scientist remains useful.

I’m a little unusual in having scientific training and in that my interest in forensic medicine has led me to combine several different aspects of social and legal history: the workings of the criminal justice system, laws and how they’re applied, the development of policing, the expertise of the medical profession, and the motives and methods of accused criminals. This connects to broader social problems like domestic violence and poverty, in many cases. Most or all of these issues are instantly related and brought vividly to light the moment a violent crime is committed, and it is important to realise that this was no less the case in the eighteenth century than today. Of course it wasn’t quite the same then, but it was more similar than most people assume. My research aims to show how we got to where we are now when it comes to crime investigation – students always find that fascinating.

There are lots of highlights of doing my research! The sense of stepping in to the shoes of a person who lived decades or centuries ago brings the past alive for me, particularly when I can see on the page in front of me their signature, or an ink blotch, or a prosecuting barrister’s trial notes (usually involving lots of underlining and a few shorthand comments using blue pencil), or the occasional doodle. I’m particularly drawn to a weird fanged dog that a Welsh judge drew in his trial notebook in 1814; I hope he did it between trials, which were conducted pretty speedily by modern standards. The point here is about evidence in court: who presented it, what they said and what the jury and judge made of it! The insights that people’s comments, questions, decisions and actions provide to attitudes and beliefs about family, medicine, law, the police, criminality, violence and justice are windows into the past but still speak to today’s concerns.

Nowadays when a crime occurs our first thought is to call the police, and they immediately call in a forensic team: a pathologist to examine the victim and a separate forensic scientific expert (often more than one) to photograph and examine the crime scene. My research shows how and when these patterns became established during the course of the nineteenth century. The development of forensic practices that we now take for granted was closely linked to the expansion of policing and an increasingly lawyer-dominated courtroom practice, and I see this beginning in the first half of the eighteenth century.

Dr Katherine Watson is Reader in History at Oxford Brookes University


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