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From Sherlock Holmes to CSI: a history of forensic medicine

Course unit fact file
Unit code HSTM32011
Credit rating 10
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


From Sherlock Holmes to CSI introduces students to selected topics in the legal application of medical scientific expertise. Through a historical perspective, students will learn about the historical development and application of forensic investigation techniques such as toxicology, psychiatry, crime scene investigation and DNA profiling, and how they were presented to the public in various media (e.g. detective fiction, newspaper reports, forensic television dramas). Students will consider who make claims to forensic truth and what tools and techniques they use to arrive at that conclusion.


To provide an introduction to selected topics in the legal application of medical and scientific expertise. To contextualize contemporary understandings of and interest in forensics and its popular representations. To consider who make claims to specific forms of forensic truth, the tools and techniques they use to arrive at that conclusion, how these conclusions are contested, and how these contestations are resolved.

Learning outcomes

On completion of this Unit, students will have acquired a knowledge of the basic features of historic developments in forensic medicine and science from the 19th century to the near-present; skills in linking the social, institutional and technical foundations for rise of specific forensic techniques to sources of debate in the medical, scientific, legal and public domains concerning the credibility of forensic evidence. They will develop critical abilities in analysing historical arguments; gain experience of presenting historical arguments in written assignments; and experience of presenting oral arguments in seminar discussions.


Content may vary from year to year in response to contemporary events and student interest, but will typically address the following broad topics:

  • From Sherlock Holmes to CSI: An introduction and overview
  • Histories of Expertise
  • Poison and the Victorians
  • Determining Sanity
  • Technologies of Identity
  • Tales from the Dead
  • Making the Crime Scene
  • Experts and Trust
  • Forensics in the DNA Age
  • Watching and the Detectives
  • Course Review

Teaching and learning methods

Weekly one hour, live and in-person lecture.

Weekly one hour, live and in-person small group seminar.

Knowledge and understanding

Students should/will be able to:

  • Describe historical developments in forensic medicine and science.
  • Describe and analyse the social, institutional and technical foundations of specific forensic techniques.
  • Review the historical impact of popular representations of forensics.
  • Identify and interpret debates in the medical, scientific, legal and public domains concerning the ethics and credibility of forensic evidence.
  • Prepare and defend well-argued contributions to interdisciplinary group discussions.

Intellectual skills

Students should/will be able to:

  • Critical thinking - capacity to abstract, analyse and make critical judgement.
  • Critical reflection and evaluation.
  • Synthesis and analysis of data and information.
  • Expression - able to make a reasoned argument for a particular issue.
  • Decision-Making - able to draw reasoned conclusions.

Practical skills

Students should/will be able to:

  • Using library, electronic and online resources.
  • Using reporting skills.
  • Peer engagement - responding to peer group views shared in seminar discussion, identifying strengths and making constructive suggestions for improvement where appropriate.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

Students should/will be able to:

  • Information Retrieval - ability independently to gather, sift, synthesise and organise material from various sources (including library, electronic and online resources), and to critically evaluate its significance.
  • Literacy - the capacity both to make written presentations using appropriate language for a target population and to collect and integrate evidence to formulate and test a hypothesis.
  • Computer Literacy - ability to use word processing, database, spreadsheet and presentation software and the use of the Internet.
  • Teamwork - recognising and identifying views of others and working constructively with them.
  • Improving own Learning - ability to improve one's own learning through planning, monitoring, critical reflection, evaluate and adapt strategies for one's learning.

Employability skills

Analytical skills
Class discussion and all written work, including exams, requires analysing critiquing scholarly works as well as primary sources.
Group/team working
Collaboration on short in-class tasks during seminar sessions.
Students can be innovative in terms of how they address their written assignments.
Oral communication
Students encouraged to pose and answer questions in lectures and seminars, and to discuss readings and course themes in seminar sessions.
Written communication
Short essay and essay exam for all students.

Assessment methods

Essay: 50%

Exam: 50%

Feedback methods

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.

Recommended reading

  • Clark, M and Crawford, C eds (1994) Legal Medicine in History . Cambridge
  • Golan, T (2004) Laws of Men and Laws of Nature: The History of Scientific Expert Testimony in England and America . Harvard
  • Aronson, J (2007) Genetic Witness: Science, Law, and Controversy in the Making of DNA Profiling . Rutgers
  • Watson, K (2010) Forensic Medicine in Western Society . Routledge
  • Adam, A (2016) A History of Forensic Science
  • Burney, I and Pemberton, N (2016) Murder and the Making of English CSI . Johns Hopkins
  • Burney, I and Hamlin, C, eds, (2019), Global Forensic Cultures: Making Fact and Justice in the Modern Era . Johns Hopkins

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Assessment written exam 2
Lectures 11
Seminars 11
Independent study hours
Independent study 76

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Ian Burney Unit coordinator

Additional notes

HSTM units are designed to be accessible to all undergraduate students from all disciplines. They assume no prior experience.

The Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM) offers a range of 'free choice' units, see The Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine Undergraduate teaching for further information. Led by experienced researchers, our teaching explores science as a part of human culture, demonstrating that history is a valuable tool for understanding the present state and possible future of science, technology and medicine.

If you are unsure whether you are able to enrol on HSTM units you should contact your School Programme and Curriculum team. You may wish to contact your programme director if your programme does not currently allow you to take a HSTM unit.

You can also contact the Academic Lead for Undergraduate teaching at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine.

The unit is offered in both 10-credit and 20-credit versions to meet the requirements of different programme structures across the University. Students will be able to choose the version appropriate to their programme.

10 credit - HSTM32011

20 credit - HSTM32511