Milestones in the History of the Forensic Autopsy


A 19th-century autopsy

Anatomy of the heart; And she had a heart! 1890. Enrique Simonet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The history of the forensic autopsy is peppered with names you’d probably recognize. Julius Caesar. Paul Revere. Although you may have not heard of Emperor Charles V himself, you’ve certainly heard of the Holy Roman Empire. And if you’ve read Antonio Garrido’s blockbuster, The Corpse Reader, you know another name: Cí Song.

These people formed important building blocks in the history of the forensic autopsy – now a critical evidentiary tool in murder investigations.

Julius Caesar’s autopsy

First determination of which wound was fatal

The death of Julius Caesar occasioned the first recorded autopsy.

The Death of Julius Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccini, ca. 1805 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When a group of Roman senators assassinated Julius Caesar in 44 BC, they stabbed Caesar 23 times. But only one wound proved fatal. That was the result of the world’s first recorded autopsy report.

A physician named Antistius examined Caesar’s body. Caesar had stab wounds everywhere – in the face, belly, groin, and arms. Antistius determined one of the two stab wounds to Caesar’s chest had sliced his heart and caused his death.

Today, a medical examiner’s conclusion of which wounds prove fatal play a critical evidentiary role. Prosecutors must prove causation in a murder case – that the defendant’s acts, and not some other factor, caused the victim’s death.

Cí Song and the Hsi Yüan Lu

First surviving textbook on autopsies

Cí Song wrote the Hsi Yüan Lu – “Instructions to Coroners” early 13th-century China. It remained the primary text there for centuries, anchoring its place in the history of the forensic autopsy. A fascinating novel about Cí Song’s life, The Corpse Reader, tells about his rise to the most prominent forensic pathologist of medieval Chinese history.

Cí Song once solved a murder case by analyzing the victim’s wounds. The shape of the cuts indicated the murderer had used a sickle. Song then asked all the farmers to turn in their sickles and noticed that flies were attracted to one of them. It had the scent of blood on it and its owner confessed.

You might call that the world’s first line up. But the witnesses were flies.

Emperor Charles V

First law requiring autopsies in murder cases

Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s ground-breaking criminal code of 1532, the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina, was the first German law that required autopsies in cases of unnatural deaths. That law still applied in 1835 when Mayor Heinrich Rieber, the victim in my book, was murdered in Bönnigheim.

The Carolina didn’t lay down any procedures for autopsies. It only required an external examination of the body and that a physician conduct them. Nevertheless, the new law was an important signpost in the history of the forensic autopsy because it gave a nod to the crucial role physical evidence can play in a murder case.

Rudolf Virchow

First Standardization in the history of the forensic autopsy

Standardization of autopsies first began after 1876 when the German physician Rudolf Virchow – considered the father of modern pathology – published his treatise on autopsy techniques. Prior to Virchow’s time, autopsies followed no regular method. Physicians haphazardly dissected to pursue their own theories of the case. And that limited discoveries. Virchow’s procedures required pathologists to cover more ground – and hence find more clues.

Paul Revere's dental identification of a body was a milestone in the history of the forensic autopsy

Paul Revere’s dentistry tools. By Otis Historical Archives Nat’l Museum of Health & Medicine (ncp1331) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Paul Revere

First dental identification

He wasn’t just the horseman in the midnight ride. Paul Revere also rode into the history of the forensic autopsy as America’s first forensic dentist. The silversmith worked on the side as an amateur dentist, creating dentures from animal teeth.

Revere’s friend Dr. Joseph Warren went missing in action after Bunker Hill. Months later, 114 corpses were exhumed from a mass grave of patriots killed in action and examined in the hopes they could be identified. Revere recognized his friend from the set of dentures he’d created from a hippopotamus tusk. He hadn’t been identified after the battle because a musket ball to his face obliterated his facial features. Revere’s identification allowed Warren to receive a hero’s funeral.

Today forensic dentistry plays a crucial role in the identification of bodies. But remember, an American patriot was the first. Dr. Vincent Di Maio and Ron Franscell discuss the case in their great book, Morgue: A Life in Death.

Can you name any other watershed moments in the history of the forensic autopsy?

Literature on point:

Sydney Smith, “The History and Development of Forensic Medicine.” British Medical Journal (March 24, 1951), 599-607.

RJ Parker, Forensic Analysis and DNA in Criminal Investigations (2015).

Vincent Di Maio & Ron Franscell, Morgue: A Life in Death (Picador, 2016).

Tales from the Practice of Medicine: Ancient Chinese Forensic Medicine,” Pure Insight (March 17, 2003).

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