Forensics: the anatomy of crime

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By | Events and Visits, From the Collections

Fancy solving a crime? Enter the macabre world of forensic pathology from today with the opening of Forensics: the anatomy of crime in Wellcome Collection’s newly refurbished Gallery 1. Arguably one of the most intriguing items from the Wellcome Library on display in this fascinating exhibition are the autopsy index cards of the pathologist Bernard Spilsbury, the so-called ‘father of modern forensics’.


First acquired by the Library in 2008 and added to in more recent times, these cards offer a fascinating insight into the nature of death in the early 20th century. The lack of health and safety regulations are obvious and death was often accidental. One woman was knocked down by the new electric brougham, a man electrocuted himself while treating his rheumatism in an electric bath. Equally random is death by rhubarb poisoning or tetanus as a result of a simple cut on the finger. In one case, a fatal abscess in the back of the throat caused the death of a man after he swallowed a fish bone. To be expected, there are a number of murders, suicides not to mention criminal abortions.

If Spilsbury does not rock your boat, you can feast your eyes on the graphic representation of bodily decay in  Kusōzu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body. Mug-shots of Alphonse Bertillon, the French policeman who introduced the system of identity photographs for police investigations, also appear.

Going back to the 16th century, a so-called ‘wound man’ gets an airing in a woodcut showing the fleshy injuries of knife wounds in a 1533 book printed in Strasbourg. A manuscript version (MS 290, below) of this type of representation of wounds can also be viewed in facsimile form in the recently refurbished Reading Room on the 2nd floor.


A quick flick through past blog posts reveals a host of related material on the subject of forensic science: Francis Galton gets an outing in 2014 during the digitisation of his archive for his introduction of the first taxonomic system of fingerprinting. The 25th anniversary of the 1st DNA fingerprint was commemorated back in 2009.

On the subject of murder, a post from 2013 uncovered a grisly crime from the pages of a Gothic novel by the GP Edward Berdoe that was solved through forensic science (St Bernard’s: The Romance of a Medical Student). The Ruffian on the Stair: CSI Victorian London, a post from 2012 features the ‘London Burkers’ the sinister duo grave-robbers of early 19th century Edinburgh who murdered victims with the sole purpose of selling their bodies and parts to anatomy schools – their chilling accounts are revealed in all their glory within MS.7058.

Forensics: the anatomy of crime runs at Wellcome Collection from 26 February 2015 – 21 June 2015. Watch this space for forthcoming Library Insight talks which will be held during the exhibition.

Author: Julia Nurse is Web Content Officer at the Wellcome Library.

Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse is Collections Researcher at the Wellcome Library. With a background in art history, she has previously worked as Assistant Curator of the Iconographic Collections, and more recently co-curated the content within the refurbished Reading Room.

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