- Legal Medicine in History
In their introduction to Legal Medicine in History, the editors emphasize the word “in” from their title: they want this collection of thirteen essays to demonstrate some of the integrative aspects of a formerly arcane subject, legal medicine. They succeed admirably. The case studies they offer range from the seventeenth century to the present. Ten deal with the history of the United Kingdom. In the other three, Mary Nagle Wessling offers an excellent account of the ways in which Enlightenment ideology, medical aspirations, and royal power came together in Wurttemberg over the crime of infanticide to produce significant sociopolitical repercussions during the second half of the eighteenth century; Ruth Harris describes the way French anarchists manipulated medicolegal court processes during the 1890s; and Julie Johnson assesses twentieth-century American coroners against a background of rapidly shifting political, scientific, and cultural forces.
But British-oriented essays constitute the core of the book. Helen Brock and Catherine Crawford begin with a flank attack upon the silly but long-lived myth that medical involvement in the English judicial system was sharply limited before the middle of the seventeenth century. They point out that many sorts of medicolegal procedures were used from the outset in colonial Maryland, including postmortem examinations, though they add wryly that “medical evidence was sometimes made to serve ends other than the impartial administration of justice” (p. 41). David Harley continues the attack with a fine summary of the way medicolegal evidence, especially evidence given by midwives, influenced the courts of Lancashire and Cheshire in the century from 1660 to 1760. Mark Jackson chronicles the shifting role of medical evidence in English infanticide cases from the first quarter of the seventeenth century through the end of the eighteenth century. His evidence reinforces Wessling’s argument that infanticide functioned as a touchstone in the development of modern legal medicine, not to mention modern social attitudes.
In one of the collection’s strongest essays, Crawford provides a brilliant gloss of Roman-canon traditions on the European continent to explain why legal medicine there appeared to be so precise and so advanced by the end of the eighteenth century in comparison with England. Brenda White also provides a comparative dimension in her first-rate discussion of Scottish legal medicine, which was overtly politicized from the beginning of the nineteenth century and intimately intertwined with what Americans would distinguish as public health issues.
Insanity, the one medicolegal subject that historians have explored in great depth, yields perhaps the best single essay in this collection: Joel Peter Eigen’s discussion of insanity trials before McNaughtan. Eigen offers intriguing argument about the way in which opinion (not scientific demonstration) became expertise, the ease (not the difficulty) with which the common law accommodated such claims of expertise, and the role that lawyers (not just physicians) [End Page 158] played in the so-called medicalization of issues like insanity. Eigen’s essay is a conceptually sophisticated piece, well worth further discussion. Stephen Watson’s discussion of prison medical officers and criminal insanity from 1880 to 1930 is a rather formulaic application of Foucault to a subject presented without much context.
Joe Sim and Tony Ward use nineteenth-century England to address a still timely and politically charged subject, the investigation of deaths in custody. They use Foucault with finesse, show how coroners played upon the public’s fear of authority, and along the way offer the best short description now in print of how coroners’ juries actually functioned in nineteenth-century England. Norman Ambage and Michael Clark offer an institutional analysis of the way classical forensic medicine lost out to practical forensic science in a struggle over the funding of institutes between the world wars. Finally, in a close analysis of the landmark abortion case Rex v. Bourne, Barbara Brookes and Paul Roth extend the discussion of how social issues become medicalized. They also show how the struggling specialty of psychiatry emerged as a major, if largely inadvertent, beneficiary of the Bourne decision.