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Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

From Sherlock Holmes to CSI: a history of forensic medicine

HSTM32011 (10-credit); HSTM32511 (20-credit)
UCOL32011 (10-credit); UCOL32511 (20-credit)

Wednesdays, 11.00-13.00

Contact: Dr Ian Burney


To investigate the growing literature on the legal application of medical and scientific expertise; to contextualize contemporary understandings of and interest in forensics and its popular representations; to consider the history of forensics as a practical example of the dynamics of public understanding of science.
20 credit unit only - to explore in detail some aspect of these themes through an individually supervised research project.

Intended Learning Outcomes

By the end of this Unit, a student will have an appreciation of the basic features of historical developments in 19th and 20th century forensic medicine and science; the social, institutional and technical foundations for rise of specific forensic techniques;  the conditions governing the application of forensic techniques in specific historical cases; the sources of debate in the medical, scientific, legal and public domains concerning the credibility of forensic evidence; the historical impact of popular representations of forensics.

Students taking the 20 credit unit will also be able to find and research a topic of their own choosing; to find and assess critically primary and secondary sources; to write, with full scholarly apparatus, a report on their individual research project.

Lecture Content

  1. From Baker Street to CSI: An introduction and overview
  2. History of Forensics and Crime
  3. Technologies of Identity
  4. “Born Criminals” in late 19th-c Criminology & Crime Fiction
  5. Determining Sanity
  6. Poison and the Victorians
  7. Tales from the Dead
  8. Traces from the Living
  9. Witnessing Truth
  10. DNA Fingerprints, Proof and Persuasion
  11. Watching the detectives: from Baker Street to CSI


10 credit unit (HSTM32012): 1500 word essay (50%); two hour final exam (50%)
20 credit unit (HSTM32512): 1500 word essay (25%); two hour final exam (25%); final project (50%)


Students may ask questions at any time during lectures and seminars. Teaching staff can usually answer specific queries by email or during office hours, and will provide contact details in the course handbook or at lectures. All submitted coursework will be returned with annotations and an assessment sheet explaining the mark awarded.

Employability skills

Oral communication - students encouraged to pose and answer questions in lectures, and discuss readings and course themes in workshop session
Written communication - Short essay and essay exam for all students, longer essay for 20-credit students
Group/team working - Collaboration on short in-class projects during workshop sessions
Project management - For 20-credit students, choosing topic, researching, and writing long essay
Research - 20-credit students do independent research for their long essays
Analytical skills - Class discussion and all written work, including exams, requires analyzing critiquing scholarly works as well as primary sources



Teaching Staff

Dr Ian Burney


A recent copy of the course outline is available to view (pdf). Please note that course content may change in the next academic year.