Seminar 3: ‘Medical expertise, professional authority and homicide in nineteenth-century Edinburgh’

‘“Upon my word, I do not see the use of having medical evidence here”: medical expertise, professional authority and homicide in nineteenth-century Edinburgh’

The third HSMT seminar of Michaelmas Term will take place at 16.00 on Monday 24th October (Week 3) in the Lecture Theatre of the History Faculty on George Street and will be delivered by Kelly-Ann Couzens.

Kelly-Ann’s thesis examines the changing role, impact and significance of medical testimony and medical expertise in criminal trials for violent crimes at the Edinburgh High Court of Justiciary, from the 1820s to the turn of the twentieth century. She predominantly focuses on the contributions and testimony made by those deemed forensic medical “experts” and the historical insights that can be gleaned from a detailed examination of their involvement in criminal trials in this period. In order to focus on the medical “expert”, her research investigates the cases of violent crimes which involved four individuals who held the Regius Chair of Medical Jurisprudence and Medical Police at Edinburgh University at different intervals across the period surveyed: Sir Robert Christison, Thomas S. Traill, Sir Douglas Maclagan and Sir Henry D. Littlejohn. She seeks to understand how important the evidence and contribution of the ‘medical expert’ was to major criminal cases, and in what ways the significance of the medical expert’s role was mediated by the nature of public, judicial and medical responses to criminal trials. The contribution of her thesis to the history of medico-legal relations is aided by the unique case study Edinburgh provides during this period, allowing the study of entrenched links between law, medicine and the university system, and an examination of the nature of what defines forensic medical expertise in these contexts.

A quick tour through the Wellcome Unit Library’s resources on this subject begins with works that take a broad view of forensic medicine. For an international and comparative perspective on the changing relationship between medicine, law and society, Katherine Watson’s Forensic medicine in Western society : a history (RA1022.W47 WAT 2011) is a structured examination of the growth of medico-legal ideas. In Surgeons at the Bailey : English forensic medicine to 1878 (RA1022.G7 FOR 1985), Thomas Rogers Forbes divides his study of the topic into detailed examinations of various offenses such as injuries from sharp and blunt instruments, homicides of children, and poisoning, looking at a large number of court cases from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century.










Works by Butler and Burney take a closer view of more narrow time frames in forensic medicine. To better understand the early role of the coroner in criminal trials, Forensic medicine and death investigation in medieval England by Sara Butler (RA1022.G3 BUT 2015 and online access from Bodleian Libraries computers) provides a good analysis of medieval medical investigation and attitudes towards inquests. Ian Burney’s focus is closer to that of Couzens: in Bodies of evidence : medicine and the politics of the English inquest, 1830-1926 (RA1053 BUR 2000), he is also interested in the role of the scientific expert in the coroner’s inquest, and the work representatives of progressive medical science did to align the inquest’s methodology with a medical model of investigation.











Medical accounts of insanity in the Victorian era offer an interesting variation on this topic. Thomas Mayo’s 1853 lectures and essay provide in insight into contemporary thought on the relationship between the law and mental illness: Medical testimony and evidence in cases of lunacy : being the Croonian lectures delivered before the Royal College of Physicians in 1853 ; with an essay on the conditions of mental soundness (RA1151 MAY 1854). Roger Smith’s Trial by medicine : insanity and responsibility in Victorian trials (KD7897 SMI 1981) looks more closely at the insanity plea, and the contentious issue of responsibility and guilt in the case of mentally unsound defendants.











Two of the physicans Couzens has examined as part of her research, were well-known for their practice of forensic medicine and popular courtroom appearances, have writings available online through SOLO: A treatise on poisons in relation to medical jurisprudence, physiology, and the practice of physic by Robert Christison, and Outlines of a course of lectures on medical jurisprudence by Thomas Stewart Traill.

Another electronic resource which may be of interest is the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, London 1674-1913, containing proceedings from 197,745 criminal trials held at London’s central criminal court. The database is fully searchable, and the search form offers the ability to select trials for particular offense – for example ‘killing > murder’, which may yield more relevant results for a focus within this field.

Please come and ask library staff if you would like any help with locating resources, or conducting further research. We also welcome further suggestions for reading not included in this post!

Header image:
L0077977    Credit: Wellcome Library, London
Plate 15, Figure 101. Murder the Result of Various Injuries Inflicted with Different Instruments. Illustration, Tab. 15.
From: Atlas of legal medicine / von E. von Hofmann ; authorized translation from the German, edited by Frederick Peterson, assisted by Aloysius O.J. Kelly. 1898. Published: W. B. Saunders, Philadelphia: 1898. Plate 15. Size: 19 cm. Collection: General Collections
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