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The rise and fall of the ‘celebrity pathologist’ in 20th-century England

April 15, 2010

By Ian Burney

Sir Bernard Spilsbury's index cards, now acquired by the Wellcome Library.

In the courtroom, on university courses, in newspapers and on our television screens, forensics has never been so visible, so compelling and, in some respects, so contentious. With the field dominated by new laboratory-based techniques, practitioners and the public they serve live in a new era of forensic infallibility, characterised by precision methodologies deemed capable not merely of solving the most intractable of contemporary criminal cases, but also of retrospectively assessing, and often correcting, conclusions derived from past investigations.

The declarative powers of modern forensics have penetrated the public imagination, showcased on highly rated television shows such as CSI and Waking the Dead and in bestselling crime novels. The world of forensic examination and the intricate web of social, legal and moral issues within which it operates captivate and compel our contemporary biomedical imagination.

The University of Manchester’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM) and its Wellcome Unit have an established and growing interdisciplinary research agenda that seeks to place such developments in historical perspective. Dr Neil Pemberton and I have recently completed a six-month Wellcome Trust-funded pilot study on the history of 20th-century British forensics. Despite a growing secondary literature on Victorian forensic medicine and science, to date there is no systematic account of British forensics in the last century. This is a surprising void, given the astonishing transformations in the theory and practice of forensics during this period, and the growing public profile that the field has attained in recent years.

The pilot grant had two aims. In the short term, it supported preliminary research into the Sir Bernard Spilsbury collection, recently acquired by the Trust, in which we explored and reassessed the work, career and exploits of this most flamboyant of 20th-century forensic practitioners. Known to contemporaries as the ‘people’s pathologist’, Spilsbury was a pivotal figure in the criminal courtroom, where he provided crucial prosecution evidence at over 200 murder trials, and where he exemplified a specific form of ‘body-centred’ forensic expertise grounded in his command of the mortuary and post-mortem slab. Because of the huge public interest in murder cases, and the controversies that could unfold in the wake of Spilsbury’s verdicts, this initial study limited itself to several key interwar cases that shed light on developments in his investigative methods and on changes in his standing as a forensic expert over the course of his long career as Home Office pathologist.

The longer-term objective of the pilot project is to secure funding in order to explore the broader development of forensic medicine and science in 20th-century Britain. Our goal is to rewrite the conventional (largely biographical) literature, which presents lone ‘celebrity’ practitioners such as Spilsbury as the publicly acclaimed face of a pathology-based forensics in the first half of the 20th century. We suspect that modern-day forensic science, which is now overwhelmingly laboratory-based and underpinned by cutting-edge developments in molecular biology, has tended to reinforce this image of isolated and insular post-mortem heroics as a throwback to a more ‘primitive’ age, in which the mortuary provided the stage for the core encounter between raw corpse and its medical interlocutor. This image is set in stark contrast to modern-day crime scene investigation, where evidentiary traces are first collected by lay ‘Scene of Crime Officers’ whose identities are concealed by white suits and masks to prevent the contamination of evidence, and then stored, classified and analysed by laboratory technicians, whose identities are submerged within a highly bureaucratised forensic science landscape.

We will therefore use the Spilsbury records as a point of departure for an interrogation of the status, structure and operation of pathology as the traditional cornerstone of British forensics since its 19th-century origins, and for an exploration of its interaction with an increasingly powerful model of forensic science and criminal detection in the 20th century, one less interested in the interrogation of the body than in the investigation of ‘things’.

In conjunction with this project, and with Dr David Kirby, who has a longstanding interest in contemporary media representation of forensics, CHSTM will host an international conference in June 2010, on ‘Forensic Cultures in Interdisciplinary Perspective’. Our aim is to place in analytical and historical perspective the remarkable prominence of forensics in our modern world. Conference details can be found on the back page and at www.chstm.manchester.ac.uk/forensics.

Dr Ian Burney is Senior Lecturer at the University of Manchester’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine.

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