Mobile menu icon
Mobile menu icon Search iconSearch
Search type

From Sherlock Holmes to CSI

Course unit fact file
Unit code UCIL32511
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by Centre for History of Science, Technology & Medicine (L5)
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


We all know what a crime scene looks like today - hooded, white-suited investigators carefully searching for traces of evidence from behind police tape. But what do we know about its history? What did a crime scene look like a century ago, and what happened in it?

Through a historical perspective, you will look at a wide range of forensic investigation techniques. From lie detectors and DNA 'fingerprinting' to detective fiction, newspaper reports of murder trials, and present-day TV forensic dramas; you will investigate who make claims to forensic truth and what tools and techniques they use to arrive at that conclusion.

This unit does not require prior scientific, legal or historical knowledge; just a curiosity about styles of forensic investigation, past and present.




UCIL units are designed to be accessible to undergraduate students from all disciplines.

UCIL units are credit-bearing and it is not possible to audit UCIL units or take them for additional/extra credits. You must enrol following the standard procedure for your School when adding units outside of your home School.

If you are not sure if you are able to enrol on UCIL units you should contact your School Undergraduate office. You may wish to contact your programme director if your programme does not currently allow you to take a UCIL unit.

You can also contact the UCIL office if you have any questions.

This unit is also available with a different course unit code. To take a UCIL unit you must choose the unit with a UCIL prefix.



The unit investigates the growing literature on the legal application of medical and scientific expertise. It contextualises contemporary understandings of and interest in forensics and its popular representations; and considers the history of forensics as a practical example of the dynamics of public understanding of science.


Learning outcomes

On successful completion of the unit you will be able to:

  • Describe historical developments in 19th and 20th-century 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 debates

In addition, for 20 credits:

  • Research and write a literature-based review, integrating scientific, historical and social viewpoints



  • Histories of Forensics and Crime
  • Poisonous Victorians
  • Determining Sanity
  • Criminal Identity
  • Tales from the Dead
  •  Make the Crime Scene
  • Experts and Trust
  • The DNA Revolution
  • Watching the Detectives

Teaching and learning methods

11 x 2 hour lectures/seminars

Employability skills

Analytical skills
Students critically examine case studies using primary and secondary literature and analyse the topics covered using both quantitative and qualitative materials
Students have the opportunity to be innovative in terms of how they address their essay topic
Oral communication
Students encouraged to take part in discussion of the lecture material during seminar sessions
Research required for essay and project

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written exam 25%
Written assignment (inc essay) 25%
Report 50%

Feedback methods

Students are encouraged ask questions at any time during lectures and seminars. Teaching staff will answer specific queries by email and 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.


Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 11
Seminars 11
Independent study hours
Independent study 178

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Ian Burney Unit coordinator