Organized Session

Bodies, Anatomy, and Medico-Legal Expertise

Organizer

Claire Cage

University of South Alabama

Chair

Alisha Rankin

Tufts University

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Session Abstract

This session examines medical practitioners' efforts to apply medical and scientific knowledge to address social and legal problems during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. During this crucial period in the rise of expertise, medical practitioners shored up their authority by filling an increasing number of juridical and administrative functions. Our panelists analyze the social uses of anatomy, colonial medicine, and forensic medicine in Britain, France, and the French empire. Focusing on the figures of the "enlightened physician" and the medico-legal expert, this session explores the construction and contestation of the social authority exercised by physicians. It also considers challenges to the exercise of medico-legal expertise. Doctors' confidence in medicine as a mechanism of discerning truth, serving justice, and ensuring social stability was coupled with epistemological uncertainty and contested medical authority.

Presenter 1

Jean-Barthélemy Dazille and the Social Uses of Anatomy in the Eighteenth-Century French Empire

Meghan Roberts

Bowdoin College

Abstract

In 1788, the physician Jean-Barthélemy Dazille published his Observations sur le tétanos. . . Précédées d'un discours sur les moyens de perfectionner la médecine. Dazille, who advocated making colonial medicine more "enlightened," insisted that all practitioners needed a strong theoretical and practical understanding of anatomy. That was nothing new: many of his contemporaries considered anatomy an especially useful and revealing branch of science.
Less expected, however, was how Dazille envisioned the impact anatomy would have on French colonies, where he imagined it would function as a unique tool for smoothing over social conflicts and ensuring social and economic stability. In Mauritius, he claimed that when he performed a careful dissection of a woman who died under mysterious circumstances, he ended a years-long family feud. In Saint-Domingue, his understanding of the human body and the laws of physics allowed him to intervene decisively in a duel gone awry. And also in Saint-Domingue, he argued that the threat of an autopsy performed by an "enlightened physician" would strike fear into the hearts of enslaved women, so much so that they wouldn't dare commit infanticide. These anecdotes all speak to very different social contexts, and yet they have a common element: the doctor whose deep knowledge of and experience with anatomy enabled him to exercise some level of social control.
I propose to examine Dazille's understanding of the wider social functions of anatomy and dissection and to put his work into dialogue with histories of forensic medicine and legal history. While Dazille himself may have never testified inside a courtroom, his vision of medicine as a key mechanism for determining the truth, adjudicating justice, and ensuring social harmony relates in important ways to forensic medicine.

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Presenter 2

Burning Bodies and Medico-Legal Expertise in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Catherine Evans

University of Toronto

Abstract

Dr. Robert Christison, the eminent Scottish physician, conducted an experiment. The subject was a young man who had poisoned himself with laudanum and slipped into a coma. Having decided that his condition was fatal and irreversible, his doctors filled a tin bowl with boiling water and trickled it over their patient's arms. Then they pressed a hot iron to his hip, and waited. Four hours later, the man died. They then touched a red-hot poker to the inside of his arm, and watched. Christison published the results of his experiment in the London Medical Gazette in 1831. He hoped to offer physicians a clear answer to a thorny question that they encountered in their legal roles as expert witnesses and coroners: Could medical science distinguish between burns suffered during life and after death?
In this paper, I take up the problem of burning in nineteenth-century British medicine and medical jurisprudence. At a time when accelerants like turpentine, coal oil and naphtha were household staples and fire fuelled domestic life, accidents were ubiquitous. Determining whether a fire had been deliberately set was notoriously difficult, in property-focused arson cases as well as in suspected homicides. Burn wounds posed many evidentiary difficulties, especially when killers used fire to conceal or obscure their crimes after a victim's death. Theories about the effect of fire on living and dead bodies abounded. For instance, while the medical writers of the mid-nineteenth century largely rejected the idea that people and things could spontaneously combust, some believed that intoxication, fatness or fashion - especially women's clothing - could make a person preternaturally flammable. Given the scientific and epistemological uncertainty about burns, I show how medico-legal experts framed poverty and femininity as risk factors, and how these associations shaped interpretations of suspected criminal violence.

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Presenter 3

Forensic Medicine on Trial in Nineteenth-Century France

Claire Cage

University of South Alabama

Abstract

Medicolegal expertise attracted scrutiny and calls for reform, as its influence in both French courts and culture grew during the nineteenth century. Leading figures in the field were the most vocal proponents of reform. Their critiques crystallized around a number of key issues concerning systemic shortcomings as well as incompetence among some medical experts. While demanding sweeping reform, a number of commentators lamented that deficiencies in medicolegal expertise were responsible for wrongful convictions and for undermining the field of forensic medicine itself.
This paper examines the tensions between confidence and uncertainty in the field of forensic medicine as well as the outcry over insufficiently trained and incompetent practitioners who carried out forensic expertise that exceeded the limits of their knowledge and skills. Serious concerns about medical practitioners' erroneous findings came to the fore in a number of criminal proceedings, including cases of suspected infanticide, poisoning, and suspicious death. Flawed autopsy reports were a lightning rod for criticism. Some medical practitioners demonstrated discomfort or a lack of confidence in distinguishing between various manners and causes of death and carrying out forensic expertise that exceeded the limits of their knowledge or training. For example, a doctor testifying before the assize court of the Seine-Inférieure in 1855 about the inconsistencies in his autopsy reports explained that he had studied forensic medicine only briefly twenty years ago and was "very ignorant" about its practices. Nonetheless, most forensic doctors advanced a narrative of progress that emphasized the triumph of science and justice, despite the considerable challenges that practitioners of forensic medicine confronted in death investigations during this period.

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Commentator

Christopher Hamlin

University of Notre Dame