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Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Forensics

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DNA scans for a 1987 murder investigation

In the courtroom, on university courses, in newspapers, and on our television screens, modern-day forensics has never been so visible, so compelling and, in some respects, so contentious.

Practitioners and the public they serve live in a new era of forensic infallibility, dominated by new laboratory-based techniques characterized by precision methodologies deemed capable not merely of solving the most intractable of contemporary criminal cases, but also of retrospectively assessing, and often correcting, conclusions derived from past investigations. The declarative powers of modern forensics have penetrated the public imagination, showcased on highly rated television shows such as CSI and Waking the Dead and in best-selling crime novels. The world of forensic examination, and the intricate web of social, legal, and moral issues within which it operates, captivates and compels our contemporary bio-medical imagination.

At CHSTM, we have an established and growing interdisciplinary research agenda that seeks to place such developments in historical perspective.

Ian Burney's past research, focused largely on Victorian medico-legal and forensic science and medicine, has resulted in two highly acclaimed books which have probed the often fraught relationship between medico-legal and public understandings of death investigation and management. Listen to "Before CSI: the origins of forensic medicine and science", a podcast featuring Ian and sponsored by the Centre for Health, Medicine and Society at Oxford Brookes University (audio hosted at the Brookes website).

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Bernard Spilsbury, the "people's pathologist", around 1920

Neil Pemberton and Ian Burney have begun Wellcome Trust-funded work on an ambitious historical survey of twentieth-century British forensics, which explores the shift from "body-centred" investigations (the traditional cornerstone of forensic practice) to the more recent and increasingly powerful model of forensic science and criminal detection centred on the fragmented corpse and its embeddedness in a newly constituted investigative site -- the "Crime Scene".

David Kirby's recent work in the public communication of science, technology and medicine (PCSTM) includes a research focus on the recent popularity of forensic television dramas, in which he investigates the paradox of "media forensics": that it leads, on the one hand, to an increase in public knowledge, but at the same time to unrealistic expectations about the power of this new set of practices to solve any and all forensic mysteries.

Nicholas Duvall is embarking on an ESRC-funded PhD on the institutional developments in postwar British forensics, including the establishment of the Forensic Science Service, and the introduction of white-suited Scene of Crime Officers (SOCOs) that have become icons of modern forensic investigation.

Recent work by CHSTM staff and students

Neil Pemberton and Ian Burney. "Bruised witness: Bernard Spilsbury, pathology and the corpse as object." Forthcoming.

Nicholas Duvall. "Forensic toxicology in Colonial India, 1850-1920". MSc Thesis, University of Manchester, 2009.

Ian Burney. "Poison and the Victorian imagination". History Today, March 2008, 58(3), 35-41.

Ian Burney. Poison, detection and the Victorian imagination. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006.

Ian Burney. Bodies of evidence: medicine and the politics of the English inquest, 1830-1926. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

Ian Burney. "Bones of contention: Mateu Orfila, normal arsenic and British toxicology". In José Ramón Bertomeu-Sánchez and Agustí Nieto-Galan, eds, Chemistry, medicine and crime: Orfila and his times. New York: Science History Publications, 2006.

Ian Burney. "Languages of the Lab: Toxicological Testing and Medico-legal Proof". Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 2002, 33(2): 289-314.

Ian Burney. "A poisoning of no substance: the trials of medico-legal proof in mid-Victorian England". Journal of British Studies, 1999, 38(1): 59-92.

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