Forensic medicine in Scotland, 1914-39

  • Nicholas Duvall

    Student thesis: Phd


    This thesis examines the practice of forensic medicine in Scotland in the period 1914 to 1939. This was a time of significant dynamism for the discipline, in which it enjoyed a high public profile and played an important role in the investigation of crime. The project focuses in particular on medico-legal practice at an elite level, based in specialist departments in the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. As well as producing a significant amount of research and textbook material, and thus constituting authorities within the discipline, representatives of these institutions gave expert evidence in a number of high-profile trials. Thus, an examination of their work can show how medico-legal knowledge was constructed, presented and challenged. To this end, four main areas of forensic medical practice are analysed, including the post-mortem examination, the laboratory analysis of trace evidence, the investigation of shootings and the use of photography. The development of the techniques contained within these categories is charted, as is the range of situations to which they were applied and the various ways in which their use was challenged in court by hostile legal counsel. Sources including textbooks and journal articles, medical case reports, photograph albums and trial transcripts are used. A fifth section explores an area of the public face of the discipline, specifically the popular output of two of its most famous practitioners, Sydney Smith and John Glaister Jr. Both produced memoirs and newspaper serials after retirement. These are used to explore the ways they reflected on their careers and spun their legacies, portraying themselves as impartial servants of science and justice. The thesis argues that the place of forensic medicine in wider institutional, investigative and geographical networks was central to its existence. The discipline collaborated extensively, both with representatives of other areas of the medical profession and with external authorities, professions and trades. Means of communication, such as written reports and samples taken at autopsy, allowed experts in the universities to lend their expertise to the non-specialists in peripheries by providing expert opinions based on materials sent to them. The scrutiny of post-mortem reports produced by peripheral generalists allowed medico-legists' expertise to be spread over a wide geographical area. The thesis also reflects on the ways in which medico-legists guarded against error. Techniques derived from other areas of medicine and science were not adopted for use in court until their reliability could be demonstrated satisfactorily, and controls and standards were built in to procedures.
    Date of Award1 Aug 2013
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • The University of Manchester
    SupervisorIan Burney (Supervisor) & David Kirby (Supervisor)


    • Forensic medicine
    • Scotland
    • Smith, Sir Sydney A
    • Glaister, John, Sr
    • Glaister, John, Jr
    • University of Edinburgh
    • University of Glasgow
    • Littlejohn, Sir Henry Harvey

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