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Forensic Medicine in Nineteenth-Century France
Erin Cage, University of South Alabama

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Forensic Medicine on Trial in Nineteenth-Century France (Conference Paper/Presentation)
Title: Forensic Medicine on Trial in Nineteenth-Century France
Author: E. Claire Cage
Abstract: Medicolegal expertise attracted scrutiny and calls for reform, as its influence in both French courts and culture grew during the nineteenth century. Leading figures in the field were the most vocal proponents of reform. Their critiques crystallized around a number of key issues concerning systemic shortcomings as well as incompetence among some medical experts. While demanding sweeping reform, a number of commentators lamented that deficiencies in medicolegal expertise were responsible for wrongful convictions and for undermining the field of forensic medicine itself. This paper examines the tensions between confidence and uncertainty in the field of forensic medicine as well as the outcry over insufficiently trained and incompetent practitioners who carried out forensic expertise that exceeded the limits of their knowledge and skills. Serious concerns about medical practitioners’ erroneous findings came to the fore in a number of criminal proceedings, including cases of suspected infanticide, poisoning, and suspicious death. Flawed autopsy reports were a lightning rod for criticism. Some doctors demonstrated discomfort or a lack of confidence in distinguishing between various manners and causes of death and carrying out forensic expertise that exceeded the limits of their knowledge or training. For example, a doctor testifying before the assize court of the Seine-Inférieure in 1855 about the inconsistencies in his autopsy reports explained that he had studied forensic medicine only briefly twenty years ago and was “very ignorant” about its practices. Nonetheless, forensic doctors advanced a narrative of progress that emphasized the triumph of science and justice, despite the considerable challenges that practitioners of forensic medicine confronted in death investigations during this period.
Date: 11/20/2021
Conference Name: History of Science Society