Forensic Medicine

Forensic medicine deals with the application of scientific medical knowledge to the administration of law, to the furthering of justice, and to the legal relations of the medical practitioner.

Forensic medicine addresses the physiology of dying, the cause and time of death, and postdeath phenomena. Practitioners of this branch of medicine assist the law in assessing the liability of medical practitioners in issues including consent to treatment, therapeutic intervention, emergency treatment, legal procedures, tissue and organ removal and transplantation, unnecessary surgery, cosmetic surgery, scientific experimentation, and sexual procedures, as well as questions regarding maternity, paternity, murder, malpractice, the development and gathering of evidence, and the application of statutory law to medicine.

Forensic medicine deals with offenses against the person or patient. Practitioners of forensic medicine assist in medical-legal investigations by offering expert opinions to help legally authorized individuals understand the medical implications of pathological examinations, including postmortem examinations (autopsies) of bodies, tissues, organs, and laboratory specimens. They offer expert scientific opinions on the cause and time of death. They may offer interpretations of DNA (genetic tissue) analysis. In criminal cases, the coroner (often a physician) provides investigators and the court expert opinion on wounds, injuries, intoxication, poisoning, infections, and the proper handling of pathologic specimens.

Practitioners of psychiatric forensic medicine provide the court with expert opinions on mental illness, diagnosis, treatment, and mental competency, competency to stand trial, and questions regarding responsibility for actions under the law. Experts in forensic medicine make use of medical science to inform the law. They offer opinions on the validity and interpretation of medical examinations and testing.

The earliest antecedent of forensic medicine was recorded in the Code of Hammurabi (Babylonian Empire, approximately 2200 B.C.E.). Paragraph 19 of that document deals with the matter of compensation for the death of a slave, ostensibly killed by a treating physician. For several thousand years there were no comparable records. Then, in the fourteenth century, physicians began to perform autopsies to investigate the cause of death through careful dissection and examination of the body of a deceased person. The first formal medical-legal inquest into the death of a person in the United States took place in New Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1635. Forensic medicine has come a long way since its inception. Contemporary postmortem examination is an integral part of criminal investigations and involves both gross and microscopic analysis of organs and tissues for the development of legal records and, if indicated, testimony in a court of law.

The term forensic medicine is often confused with the term medical jurisprudence. In fact, the terms mean the same thing in some countries. In the United States, the terms are not synonymous. Medical jurisprudence encompasses the legal aspects of medical practice as they involve risks to society, negligence, and unlawful and/or unethical practices. Medical jurisprudence deals with the codes, ethics, and laws that guide the practice of medicine. Forensic dentistry and forensic anthropology are closely related to the field of forensic medicine. Like forensic medicine, they rely on specially trained and experienced practitioners who help to inform the law with interpretations of the results of specialized examinations testing.

See also: Exhumation ; Homicide, Definitions and Classifications of ; Human Remains


Camps, Francis E., ed. Gradwohl's Legal Medicine, 3rd edition. Chicago: Year Book Medical Publishing Company, 1994.

Meyers, David W. Medico-Legal Implications of Death and Dying: A Detailed Discussion of the Medical and Legal Implications Involved in Death and/or Care of the Dying and Terminal Patient. Rochester, NY: The Lawyers Co-Operative Publishing Co., 1981.

Spitz, Werner U., and Russell S. Fisher, eds. Medicolegal Investigation of Death: Guidelines for the Application of Pathology to Crime Investigation. Springfield, IL: Thomas, 1980.


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