Cornhill Magazine,  7 (1863), 338–48.

The Medical Evidence of Crime

[Francis E Anstie]




Crime, Physiological Chemistry, Pharmaceuticals, Medical Practitioners, Expertise, Professionalization, Status

People mentioned:

Alfred S Taylor , Thomas G Geoghegan , Johann L Casper , William Palmer

    Observes that in a period which 'has not been distinguished, in this country, by any special regard for the sanctity of human life', murderers have become 'alarmingly familiar with some of the most recondite secrets of toxicology', while 'unfortunately the power of detecting poisoning has by no means reached perfection' (338). Reflects on the understandable 'slowness and unwillingness to act' on their suspicions, of doctors who know 'all the difficulties which will attend the production of proofs which will satisfy a jury, or all the obloquy, and perhaps fatal damage to reputation, which will fall upon the medical man who prefers an unfounded charge of poisoning' (339). A doctor should not be given 'the functions of detective police officer, which he has made no contract with society to perform' (348). Rather, proposes that the 'Chief Commissioner of Police be empowered, by an Act of Parliament, to supply any medical man, who may apply to him in such a difficulty, with the assistance of two medico-legal experts, paid servants of the Crown, and permanently appointed for this very purpose' (340–41). Also contends that 'the sober dignity of science should not be turned into a mockery by a system which forces the medical witness to take the position of an advocate' (348), and which provides 'no means of knowing the comparative weight which ought to be attached to statements and opinions of the different medical witnesses'. In this system, the members of the jury are led to think that 'Dr.—, who was plucked at the college and hall, and afterwards managed to slip through the mild ordeal necessary for procuring the M.D. diploma of a very complaisant university, is the equal or superior of plain Mr.—, who may happen to be one of the first physiologists and toxicologists of the day'. (341) Instead, such medical 'evidence should be presented, in its first confused shape, not to a jury of laymen who are utterly unable to extract the truth from a mass of seeming contradictions, but to a selected and perfectly impartial commission, chosen from among the highest authorities in legal medicine, who should hear and weigh every possible medical argument which can be urged on either side, and should present a report to the court, which should be considered final as regards the purely scientific questions involved in the case' (343).

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