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

The Books I Picked & Why

Forensic Medicine and Death Investigation in Medieval England

By Sara M. Butler

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.  


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

By Victoria Bates

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. 


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

By Joel Peter Eigen

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.


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Legal Medicine in History

By Michael Clark, Catherine Crawford

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. 


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Murder and the Making of English CSI

By Ian Burney, Neil Pemberton

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. 


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