Vol. 2, Issue 1.‎ > ‎

Libri: Forensic Medicine in Western Society: A History

Daniel Asen

Columbia University, New York, NY, USA

Forensic Medicine in Western Society: A history

Katherine D. Watson

New York: Routledge, 2011. Pp. vi, 214

Paperback: 978-0-415-44772-0, $30.95

Hardback: 978-0-415-44771-3, $105.00


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Forensic Medicine in Western Society: A history, by Katherine D. Watson, is unique within English-language scholarship on the history of forensic medicine. Combining broad historical scope that covers the Middle Ages to the present (with perfunctory mention of earlier periods), substantial comparison between continental European and Anglo-American legal systems, and coverage of the key areas of medico-legal knowledge and practice, this succinct volume is the most thorough introductory text for the history of this subject.

The work's six chapters balance a narrative of persistent relations between medicine and law with examination of the specific developments that have produced modern medico-legal expertise: legal institutions that provide a formal role for the participation of experts, a notion of “expertise” that emphasizes scientific knowledge and professional affiliation, and forms of governance that rely on medical professionals to identify and manage “deviant” behavior thereby supplementing adjudication and punishment.

The first chapter examines the development of evidentiary procedures in continental Roman-canon law and English common law. Building on Legal Medicine in History (Michael Clark and Catherine Crawford eds. Legal Medicine in History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), which argued that differences in procedures for admitting evidence can be used to explain disparities in the development of medico-legal literature in continental Europe and England, Watson establishes legal process as a crucial factor in the subsequent development of medico-legal knowledge and expertise. The second chapter presents a broad survey of medico-legal practice in ancient, medieval, and early modern Europe (as well as ancient Egypt), examining, among other topics, the role of midwives and other female examiners.

The book addresses shifting meanings of “expertise,” situating the history of the medico-legal within three interrelated developments: the rising importance of formal training (rather than simply skill and experience) to early modern notions of “expertise”; the development of legal procedures through which experts could participate in the law; and the ways that these procedures reflected the quality of relations between state and medical profession in various national contexts. Watson surveys medico-legal treatments of “insanity” as a crucial site at which jurists, physicians, and members of increasingly specialized fields such as forensic psychiatry negotiated conceptions of legal responsibility with notions of intellectual and moral capacity rooted in medicine and the modern human sciences. In addition, she examines the ways that suicide, infanticide, and sexuality (focusing on “sexual defects” that could nullify marriage during the early modern period and same-sex relations since the Enlightenment) have become progressively “medicalized,” emerging as objects of medical intervention, not simply legal penalty. Watson suggests that in the modern period, medical interest in these areas of longstanding legal concern have positively placed such individuals “in a neutral moral light, in contrast to the old emphasis on sin and criminality” (p. 122). In Chapter 6, Watson turns to the state of contemporary forensic science, examining the increasing specialization of forensic disciplines and new areas of inquiry such as forensic entomology and DNA analysis. 

Throughout this work, the “medico-legal” figures as both those areas in which legal institutions and jurists have engaged with medical knowledge and expertise (however defined) and the ways in which professional physicians and medical institutions have addressed legally-relevant problems through specialized research and training. Watson’s comparative approach yields insights in both areas, showing the ways in which different legal institutions have variably incorporated “expertise” into the law while supporting, in different ways, the development of professional medico-legal knowledge. Watson’s comparative approach also demonstrates convergence over time, as forensic research and investigation have taken the modern physical and biological sciences as their foundations across the contemporary West.

This work is organized both thematically and chronologically, allowing for a balanced discussion of overarching themes (e.g. the role of legal institutions in shaping the possibilities for medical expertise, changing conceptions of "expertise" over time, and so on) with an historical narrative that leads to the highly specialized forensic sciences of the present day. Watson does situate medico-legal developments within their broader historical contexts, such as in the influence of Enlightenment ideas of “rationality and free will” (p. 81) on conceptions of legal responsibility. Yet, major turning points such as industrialization and urbanization, the rise of evolutionary biology and its implications for notions of social identity, and the modern professionalization of science tend to recede into the background of the narrative. More sustained discussion of these historical (and historic) transformations might have further clarified what “law” and “medicine” – not to mention “governance,” “science,” and “deviance” – meant at any given point in time, thus adding additional texture, historical specificity, and coherence to discussions of different areas of medico-legal practice. Empire and race, two themes that have influenced the development of modern notions of criminality as well as forensic techniques such as fingerprinting, are not treated. Watson’s transnational approach could have no doubt added an interesting comparative dimension to these topics.

This book serves  as an introductory overview, providing readers with historical background in the history of medicine and law, discussion of the terminology of medico-legal disciplines (forensic medicine, legal medicine, medical jurisprudence, and so on), and suggestions for further reading. “Case study” boxes that narrate cases are interspersed with the text, concretizing institutional history with specific criminal actions, forensic techniques, and controversies. These cases enliven the narrative by providing glimpses into ordinary and landmark forensic cases. In its treatment of the shifting meanings of “expertise” over time as well as the decisive role that legal institutions and social values have played in both fostering and challenging the authority of scientific knowledge, this work also introduces important questions in the broader historiography of science. As such, it presents readers with questions that are of importance beyond the specific interactions of medicine and the law. 

Historia Medicinae Editor,
Feb 27, 2012, 9:58 PM