Address in Forensic Medicine

D Maclagan
1878 The BMJ (British Medical Journal) (Print)  
IIY first duty is to thank you for having done me the honour of Asking me to address you on the subject of Forensic Medicine. I should have been unwilling to accept this compliment if I had fancied that it was paid to me as an individual; but I recognise in it an expression of your good wvill to the university in which I have the honour to be a professor, and in the name of my Alma Meater I thank you cordially and sincerely. I only wish that she herself, and that department of our profession of
more » ... which I have to speak to you, had not deprived me of a good deal of the time which I required for the due discharge of these duties; but an unusual number of candidates for 'degrees necessitated the bestowal of much of my time on examinations, and a succession of important medico-legal investigations occupying the hours I could spare from other work, concurred in engrossing my attention for some weeks. I am constrained to put in this special defence in extenuation of my poverty of performance-not for my own protection, but lest the University of Edinburgh should suffer in character from the shortcomings of him who is her representative on the present occasion. I do not profess to have been troubled with much doubt as to the line which I should follow in addressing you. I have not thought of recounting to you the history of Forensic Medicine during the last year or two, because I am not aware of any startling discovery or revolution in opinion which marks an era in its progress. I never thought of occupying the time of busy practitioners of medicine with details as to processes of medico-legal investigation, in which the great majority of you would never think of engaging. It never occurred to me to occupy your attention with a narrative of actual cases in which I have been engaged, however curious may be the points which they present to us; for I feel that we are met here for better purposes than listening to histories, albeit I believe that, flavoured as they are with a slice of romance, they might at any rate be more captivating to your attention than anything I ain about to say. My idea is, that I can best fulfil the duty of addressing you on Forensic M\edicine by igiioring individual instances and takin, a look at the subject generally, especially in relation to the matter of preliminary inquiry into cases of a suspicious character which involve medical considerations. It is quite true that this means looking rather at the legal than the medical aspect of the subject ; but the numerous letters which appeared last year in the Association's JOURNAL, and the fact of a conference, mainly composed of medical men, having been held by the [ardianmentary Bills Committee of the Association, under the presidency of Mr. Ernest Hart, on the subject of coroners' inquests in November last, justify me, I think, in following this line on the present occasion. It will, I suspect, prove, that much of what I say will appear to you gen lemen of England to be heretical; but I believe you will not absolutely object to hear the views of one who has had some medico-legal experience in a country where there is no such person as a coroner, and no such body as a grand jury, but where there does exist in full activity a public prosecutor, who is almost an unknown functionary south of the Tweed. Before saying anything further on the special subject of preliminary, or rather primary, investigations in cases of suspicion, let me shortly inquire in what estimation this department of State Medicine is held by the public and by the professions of medicine and law. As regards the appreciation of Forensic Medicine by the general public (I mean the laity outside the professions of law and medicine), I think, on the whole, it tends to exaggeration. Ignorant of the modern progress of science, they, on the oame ignotun pro magnifico principle, are rather astounded by the evidence given in the courts by experts. They of course know nothing of the progress which chemistry, physiology, and pathology have made in recent times, and they regard as something marvellous, what we, as well educated men, know to be only ordinary scientific knowledge, the delicate chemical results, the logically connected physiological phenomena, and the accurately noted pathological appearances which are brought forth, say in a trial for murder by poison, by well qualified experts. Be it so. It is an error on the cafe side, if it could only reach the minds of those who have criminal proclivities. Unhappily, most of them are of the rude, utterly ignorant, class. But we have had our scientific murderers, our Palmers, Pritchards, Chatrelles, whose crimes have been satisfactorily brought home to them; and every conviction obtained under difficult circumstances is a fresh weapon in the hands of retributive justice, which she can wield as a terror to evil doers. We must not in a quackish spirit exaggerate, but we need not in any spirit of mock humility decry, the power of good medical evidence for the detection of crime; and we may with honest pride point to what she can do, and in numerous instances has done, in the way of vindicating the offended majesty of the laws of God and man. I am not quite sure what answer I should give to the question, How does the profession of the law regard Forensic Medicine? I think that on the whole your practising lawyer looks upon it as a rather sharp weapon, but he has some dread of it as a double-edged one; or rather he often regards it is a kind of boomerang, which may make a deadly hit if skilfully thrown, but which may occasionally turn back in an unexpected way and smite the arm which projected it. Do not accuse me of Scotch pride, if I say that I believe Forensic Medicine is more properly appreciated among Scotch than among English lawyers. I think I have grounds for this; it is, at all events, more studied by them. No man is called to the Scotch bar who has not attended a course of lectures on Medical Jurisprudence. I am not aware that any similar provision exists in your Inns of Court. This is not what should be. Forensic Medicine is a weapon which every lawyer has occasion to employ; and, in order to his successfully scoring a hit, he ought to know its mechanism, the elevation he ought to give to it, and the allowance he ought to make for the wind of difficulty and uncertainty which more or less always blows across his range. I have often seen in the records of both English and Scotch courts how the want of some knowledge of this nature has crippled the hands of a barrister. Nay, with all reverence be it said, how it has led to manifest nonsense being uttered from the Bench by the mouths of those from whom better things might have been expected; and I would rather wish that English as well as Scotch lawyers (if there be no recent regulation to the effect, of which I am unaware) were obliged to make Forensic Medicine part of their professional study. I should be doing violence to my own sense of justice if I did not take this opportunity of saying that the law students who attend my lectures are, as a class, distinguished by their earnestness and zeal in acquiring knowledge, and if I did not record the satisfaction which I have often felt in our criminal courts in finding a young barrister employing, in crossexamination of myself, medico-legal knowledge which I had the privilege of imparting to him. WVhat shall I say as to the appreciation of Forensic Medicine by our own profession ? I fear, if I am to be candid, I must say it sometimes has rather the cold shoulder turned to it. I fear that many of our students think it a matter of little or no importance, and many teachers do nothing to disabuse them on this point. You will, of course, absolve me, who am a teacher of Forensic Medicine, from the preposterous idea of holding that it need be placed upon the same platform, in regard to importance, as medicine, surgery, and obstetrics. I have seen an(l heard too much of forensic work not to know how thoroughly an advocate may ruin his case by pleading it too high.
pmid:20748948 pmcid:PMC2221787 fatcat:v2m2kqfl2zfmnj4bp2bcymlply