Bruised witness: Bernard Spilsbury and the performance of early twentieth-century English forensic pathology

Med Hist. 2011 Jan;55(1):41-60. doi: 10.1017/s0025727300006049.


This article explores the status, apparatus and character of forensic pathology in the inter-war period, with a special emphasis on the 'people's pathologist', Bernard Spilsbury. The broad expert and public profile of forensic pathology, of which Spilsbury was the most prominent contemporary representative, will be outlined and discussed. In so doing, close attention will be paid to the courtroom strategies by which he and other experts translated their isolated post-mortem encounters with the dead body into effective testimony. Pathologists built a high-profile practice that transfixed the popular, legal and scientific imagination, and this article also explores, through the celebrated 1925 murder trial of Norman Thorne, how Spilsbury's courtroom performance focused critical attention on the practices of pathology itself, which threatened to destabilise the status of forensic pathology. In particular, the Thorne case raised questions about the interrelation between bruising and putrefaction as sources of interpretative anxiety. Here, the question of practice is vital, especially in understanding how Spilsbury's findings clashed with those of rival pathologists whose autopsies centred on a corpse that had undergone further putrefactive changes and that had thereby mutated as an evidentiary object. Examining how pathologists dealt with interpretative problems raised by the instability of their core investigative object enables an analysis of the ways in which pathological investigation of homicide was inflected with a series of conceptual, professional and cultural difficulties stemming in significant ways from the materiality of the corpse itself. This article presents early findings of a larger study of twentieth-century English homicide investigation which focuses on the interaction between two dominant forensic regimes: the first, outlined in part here, is a body-centred forensics, associated with the lone, 'celebrity' pathologist, his scalpel and the mortuary slab; the second is a 'forensics of things' centred on the laboratory and its associated technologies of trace analysis (hair, blood, fibres), deployed in closed technician-dominated spaces and in the regimentally managed crime scene. Future work will seek to illuminate the shifting landscape of English forensics by following the historical interplay between these two powerful investigative models.

Keywords: Bernard Spilsbury; Bruising; Decomposition; Exhumation; Expert Testimony; Forensic Pathology; Homicide Investigation; Post-mortem Examination.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • England
  • Expert Testimony / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Forensic Pathology / history*
  • History, 20th Century
  • Homicide / history*
  • Homicide / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Humans

Personal name as subject

  • Bernard Spilsbury