The best books on the history of forensic medicine

Katherine D. Watson Author Of Medicine and Justice: Medico-Legal Practice in England and Wales, 1700-1914
By Katherine D. Watson

Who am I?

I work on topics where medicine, crime, and the law intersect, aided by an undergraduate degree in chemistry and stimulated by my fascination with how criminal justice systems work. I have published on the history of poisoning, vitriol attacks, assault, child murder, and the role of scientific expertise in criminal investigations and trials, focusing on Britain since the seventeenth century. I’ve contributed to many TV documentaries over the years, and enjoy the opportunity to explain just why the history of crime is about so much more than individual criminals: it shows us how people in the past lived their lives and helps explain how we got where we are today.  

I wrote...

Medicine and Justice: Medico-Legal Practice in England and Wales, 1700-1914

By Katherine D. Watson,

Book cover of Medicine and Justice: Medico-Legal Practice in England and Wales, 1700-1914

What is my book about?

This study uses 2,600 cases of murder and sexual assault to answer two central questions: what did doctors contribute to the investigation of serious violent crime in the period 1700 to 1914, and what impact did this have?

It shows that medico-legal work — that is, what doctors actually did when they were faced with a body that had become the victim of violence — developed in tandem with and was shaped by the needs of two evolving practices: pre-trial investigative procedures dominated successively by coroners, magistrates and the police; and criminal trials in which lawyers gradually assumed a central role. Doctors were therefore key contributors to the processes that shaped the modern criminal justice system in England and Wales.

The books I picked & why

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Forensic Medicine and Death Investigation in Medieval England

By Sara M. Butler,

Book cover of Forensic Medicine and Death Investigation in Medieval England

Why this book?

This book overturns a long-held notion that the English were slow to adopt forensic practices in death investigations, by showing just what medieval people did when a body turned up dead in mysterious circumstances. The records created by coroners’ inquests reveal the rather impressive thoroughness of this key element of late medieval law enforcement, including the regular presence of medical professionals on inquest juries.  

Sexual Forensics in Victorian and Edwardian England: Age, Crime and Consent in the Courts

By Victoria Bates,

Book cover of Sexual Forensics in Victorian and Edwardian England: Age, Crime and Consent in the Courts

Why this book?

This fascinating study shows that victim-blaming has a long history and doctors have been part of the problem, playing a significant role in constructing and reinforcing rape myths in the years 1850-1914. The unique focus on age, medical beliefs about puberty, and public concerns about sexual offences and working-class sexuality explains why even children under the legal age of consent might not be seen as sexually innocent. Medicine provided a scientific rationale for deeply entrenched and remarkably stable popular beliefs about ‘real rape’ and ‘victimhood’, contributing to the serious burden that female victims faced in court. 

Mad-Doctors in the Dock: Defending the Diagnosis, 1760-1913

By Joel Peter Eigen,

Book cover of Mad-Doctors in the Dock: Defending the Diagnosis, 1760-1913

Why this book?

Based on the authentic voices of doctors, prisoners and legal personnel who appeared at London’s central criminal court, the Old Bailey, the book charts the development of forensic psychiatry as a field of medical expertise. Terms like melancholia, mania and delusion were so adaptable that they could be used to account for apparently motiveless crimes, including murder. Judges, juries, doctors and lawyers focused on establishing what a prisoner knew they were doing and would likely have believed about the outcome of the act, revealing the medico-legal foundations of the modern insanity defense.

Legal Medicine in History

By Michael Clark (editor), Catherine Crawford (editor),

Book cover of Legal Medicine in History

Why this book?

Newcomers to the subject can turn to this indispensable collection of essays for an outstanding introduction to the key legal, institutional, and professional foundations of forensic medicine in Europe and the United States since the seventeenth century. Case studies of infanticide, the mentally ill, coroners’ inquests, and abortion show just how deeply embedded in social, political, and legal contexts forensic practices are, and highlight their power to inspire and shape socio-legal change. 

Murder and the Making of English CSI

By Ian Burney, Neil Pemberton,

Book cover of Murder and the Making of English CSI

Why this book?

This is an important resource for anyone interested in the history of twentieth-century forensic practice, because it explains the rise of forensic science as a discipline separate from forensic medicine. Forensic scientists, based in laboratories, analyse trace evidence found at crime scenes, while forensic pathologists focus on the dead body in the mortuary. An analysis of the 1953 serial murders committed by John Christie at his infamous London address, 10 Rillington Place, shows how murder investigations had by then become team efforts centred on the crime scene itself. 

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in forensic science, murders, and criminal investigations?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about forensic science, murders, and criminal investigations.

Forensic Science Explore 20 books about forensic science
Murders Explore 339 books about murders
Criminal Investigations Explore 184 books about criminal investigations

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like When Science Sheds Light on History, Forensic Medicine, and Corpse if you like this list.