Feature Christmas 2010: Whodunit

The rise and fall of celebrity pathology

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c6500 (Published 14 December 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c6500
  1. Ian Burney, senior lecturer1,
  2. Neil Pemberton, research associate1
  1. 1Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, University of Manchester, Manchester M13 9PL, UK
  1. Correspondence to: ian.burney{at}manchester.ac.uk

What has happened to the thoughtful, bowler-hatted figure of the forensic pathologist, the spectacular but fallible artist of battered flesh?

Celebrity pathology was born in England one hundred years ago, when Sir Bernard Spilsbury’s identification of scar tissue on a fragment of putrefied flesh found in the cellar of 39 Hilldrop Crescent secured the conviction of Hawley Harvey Crippen for the murder of his wife. Exactly a century later, the same case that witnessed the rise of this new star in the forensic firmament is engulfed in a controversy that suggests his time has passed.

According to a multi-authored research paper recently published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, the key to the 21st century version of Crippen’s story does not lie in rotting remains interpreted by a publicly celebrated master of the mortuary. Instead, it is to be found in sanitised biomatter abstracted from the body and analysed in a high tech genetics laboratory. “DNA testing of remains, such as those found in Crippen’s cellar”, the article insists, provides “far more objective results … than interpretation of small physical abnormalities in highly decayed flesh.”1

The paper, The conviction of Dr. Crippen: new forensic findings in a century-old murder by Foran and colleagues represents a marker of the boundaries of the celebrity pathologist’s century long reign. Before the Crippen case there was no such forensic being. Of course, the postmortem encounter with the corpse for medicolegal purposes has a long historical pedigree, but it was only in the first decades of the 20th century, in England, that the encounter between the body and the pathologist became a high profile and personalised practice. Even in the most widely publicised of Victorian homicide investigations, like the Ripper murders, victims’ bodies were examined by faceless investigators, often local practitioners with no …

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