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Unit information: A Body of Evidence: Forensic Medicine in Britain (Level I Special Field) in 2015/16

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Unit name A Body of Evidence: Forensic Medicine in Britain (Level I Special Field)
Unit code HIST20043
Credit points 20
Level of study I/5
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Dr. Victoria Bates
Open unit status Not open



Special Field Project

School/department Department of History (Historical Studies)
Faculty Faculty of Arts


Medical roles in the detection and prosecution of crime have changed significantly since 1800, in response to a range of professional and technological developments. This special field module will examine the history of forensic medicine in the period 1800-1939, with particular attention to the shifting roles of medical practitioners in providing evidence before and during criminal trials. It will consider the overarching theme of how, as historians, we can define and measure changes in medical expertise over time. During the course of this module we will examine a range of important sub-topics within forensic medicine, including: the detection of specific crimes (such as infanticide, murder, rape); the development of technologies for the detection of crime (such as police laboratories); the relationship between medicine and the law (often perceived by historians as a battle for expertise); the role of specialists in the courtroom (particularly psychiatrists, for the insanity defence). In order to consider these issues we will engage with a wide range of primary source materials, which may include trial records, materials from coroners’ courts, medical jurisprudence texts and newspaper reports.

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion of this unit students will have developed 1. An in-depth historical knowledge of the development of forensic medicine during since the nineteenth century; 2. a deeper awareness of how to approach a long term historical analysis; 3. the ability to set individual issues within their longer term historical context; 4. the ability to analyse and generalise about issues of continuity and change; 5. the ability to select pertinent evidence/data in order to illustrate/demonstrate more general historical points; 6. the ability to derive benefit from and contribute effectively to large group discussion; 7. the ability to identify a particular academic interpretation, evaluate it critically and form an individual viewpoint; 8. the acquisition of key writing, research, and presentation skills.

Teaching details

Weekly 2-hour seminar. Access to tutorial advice with unit tutor in consultation hours.

Assessment Details

2-hour unseen written examination (summative, 100%)

The examination will assess ILOs 1-8 by assessing the students’ understanding of the unit’s key themes, the related historiography as developed during their reading and participation in / learning from small group seminars, and relevant primary sources. Further assessment of their handling of the relevant primary sources will be provided by the co-requisite Special Field Project

Reading and References

Anderson, O., Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England (Clarendon Press, 1987). Clark, M. and Crawford, C. (eds). Legal Medicine in History (Cambridge, 1994). Crozier, Ivan, and Gethin Rees, ‘Making a Space for Medical Expertise: Medical Knowledge of Sexual Assault and the Construction of Boundaries between Forensic Medicine and the Law in late Nineteenth-Century England’, Law, Culture and the Humanities 8 (2012), 285-304. Eigen, J. P., ‘Lesion of the Will: Medical Resolve and Criminal Responsibility in Victorian Insanity Trials’ Law and Society Review 33 (1999) 425-59. Forbes, T. R., Surgeons at the Bailey: English Forensic Medicine to 1878 (Yale University Press, 1985). Watson K. D. Forensic Medicine in Western Society: A History (Routledge, 2011).