History of Forensic Pathology

In the past, we’ve written rather extensively on what forensic pathology entails and what requirements should a individual looking to become a forensic pathologist fulfill. Like any field of science, however, many times it’s advised to turn to its roots, see how it was first described and what we can learn from its history.

Painting depicting the death of Julius Caesar, by C.l. Doughty. Painting depicting the death of Julius Caesar, by C.l. Doughty.

Forensic pathology is probably the most important field of forensic science today. A forensic pathologist must determine the cause of an unexpected death, whether it be a homicide (murder); suicide; accidental or natural causes. To establish the cause of death, a forensic pathologist has an array of tools and techniques at his disposal, the most common and effective being an autopsy. Technical terms include: lacerations; incised wound; puncture; abrasion; construsion; gunshot wound (then if it was a contact, close range, intermediate range, or distant range).

The advance of technology has greatly helped forensic pathology become more accurate, most notably DNA tests absolutely revolutionized the field when they were first introduced. But this is a bit far away – to review the history of forensic pathology, we need to dwell far deeper.

Some historians have regarded Imhotep (2650-2600 BC) as the first medicolegal expert because he was both chief justice and personal physician to pharaoh Zoser. In ancient Egypt, juridicial inquiries, aided by postmortem examinations, were required as far as some unexpected deaths were concerned, for high levels members of the clique.

In 44 BC, on of the first historical account of a forensic pathology examination occurred immediately after the sleighing of Julius Caesar by his collaborators. The examiner of that time concluded that of the the 23 wounds found on the body only one was fatal. Senators didn’t have that much of a skill with daggers and knives, maybe Brutus, a distinguished military, was the one that struck the fatal blow?

The first forensic medicine book was written in 1247 by Song Ci, an outstanding forensic scientist in the Southern Song Dynasty, who is now remembered as the father of forensic medicine. The five-volume masterpiece is titled Xiyuanjilu, and was written from Song Ci’s experience with forensic medicine during his life time.

In Europe, the first written records concerning forensic pathology appeared in 1507, when a volume titled the Bamberg Code appeared. Interesting enough a few years after the book came out, Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire changed the penal code in an very extensive manner, dubbing it Constitutio Criminalis Carolina, in which, among other, forensic pathology in trial was given a high importance. Thus, medical testimony was required during a trial, such that the manner of death had to be concluded, whether it was infanticide, homicide, abortion or poisoning.

Pathology was branched as an integral part of medicine into the investigation of deaths in the latter part of the nineteenth century, in America at least, when in 1890 in Baltimore a city ordinance authorized the Board of Health to appoint two physicians with the titles of medical examiner and assign them the duty of performing all autopsies requested by the coroner.

Finally, after pathology and toxicology were applied in solving thousands of crime cases in the world, forensic pathology was first recognized in the USA by the in 1959. Canada came a bit late to officialese the field, as it was formally recognized in 2003.

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