Milestones in the History of the Forensic Autopsy

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).

Written by
Ann Marie
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  • That was a fun and interesting piece. I’ve always wanted to observe an autopsy, but I wouldn’t like actually doing it.

    • I’ve never observed an autopsy, but I have had the chance to work with cadavers in the anatomy lab and was very thankful for the learning opportunity. If a picture is worth a thousand words, and cadaver is worth a million. Much better than the anatomy textbook. Thanks for commenting, Susan!

  • How amazing to learn that Paul Revere crafted dentures from animal teeth! Even more fascinating is that he was , possibly, the first post mortem verification of a body by their teeth! In this case, by the fact that Paul Revere crafted the dentures himself and recognized them! That must have been especially shocking to the people of that time and era!!
    Good dental care is so important, we take it for granted. Throughout history, and before modern dentistry, many people died from tooth infections and from having no access to dental care or anti-biotics.
    One can imagine what Paul Revere had to look at to identify his friend, since the article says that the corpses were exhumed from a mass grave in hopes of being identified!

    • I’ve heard too that tooth infections used to be a major cause of death. Thank goodness for modern dental medicine! You never think about your dentist saving your life, but it’s a fact.

      Dentures have been around a while, and it makes sense to craft them from animal teeth. It’s amazing Paul Revere could identify his friend’s body that way. It makes me wonder, though, how they thought they could identify the other bodies. No one wore dog tags in the Revolutionary War….

      Thanks for commenting, Laura!

  • I just came across this site in a Google search for a history of US autopsy laws for unnatural death. This site is fascinating. I’ve already signed up for your newsletter and will be back to read more!

    • Thanks so much, Mel, for your postive comments. I’m recovering from major surgery at the moment and am behind in my newsletter and blog posts, but I’ll be back to it again.

  • This article had several fascinating points that I wasn’t aware ot. Thank you so much for writing it! Julius Caesar’s autopsy was very interesting as well as Paul Revere making teeth for people and then being able to identify an old friend from the teeth that he had made was something I never knew, and I lived near Boston for close to three years. I don’t remember his being a dentist or this event ever being mentioned on the tours that we took. And of course the standardization of autopsies was something that had to happen so there would be uniformity and having everyone doing it correctly. I saw a few animal autopsies when I worked for a veterinarian in high school, and then we performed one in pharmacy school. The actual main point of the experiment was to have an unknown drug in a group of 4 people with one dog, and starting with a low dose and writing down all of the bodily functions that changed, such as increased or decreased heart rate, pupil size, etc, and then slowly increasing the dose and monitoring the body changes until the dog died. That isn’t one of my better memories since I’m a big animal lover! We were the only group that figured out what drug we had been giving the dog. Each group had a different drug that they were testing on their dog. This article was very interesting, thank you.

    • I’m glad you liked the article, Susan. Autopsies (or necropsies, as the veterinarians call them) can be a critical part of medicine and end up helping other animals. But I can understand how one would make you queasy!

  • Am a writer in Roanoke, Va., doing research on the fictional Dr. Watson of Sherlock Holmes fame., with a view of creating series of new stories with Watson a central figure. Preliminary queries concern when was forensic pathology first recognized in Great Britain, possibly during 1880’s, under this or similar terms such as Medical Examiner. My latest book “Tales of the Fox” on Amazon features a very shrewd M.E. Dr. Paul McIver, who helps Sheriff Renard in his crime investigations.

    • Thanks for commenting, Richard. Your book sounds fascinating — I’m going to take a look at it. Sherlock Holmes, by the way, was in part based on the Austrian law professor Hans Gross, who wrote the first textbook on criminal investigations in the late 19th century. That textbook has been translated into English and might help you.

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