The Police Surgeon, Medico-Legal Networks and Criminal Investigation in Victorian Scotland

  • Kelly-Ann Couzens
Part of the Palgrave Histories of Policing, Punishment and Justice book series (PHPPJ)


As a medical practitioner affiliated to the city police and responsive to the demands of legal officials, the police surgeon daily worked at the intersection between differing professional collectives and communities in the nineteenth century. Conducting physical examinations of assaulted parties, undertaking post-mortem dissections and certifying cases of mental insanity formed the cornerstone of the police surgeon’s daily diet of forensic work in Victorian Edinburgh. In addition, the police surgeon was frequently on call day or night (and in any weather) to the local force. Accordingly, this practitioner often became the vital first point of medical contact with victims (and suspects) in cases of homicide or assault in the nineteenth century. Yet despite the pivotal role this practitioner occupied as a forensic expert in the Victorian city, relatively little scholarship has been dedicated to analysing the contribution and nature of the police surgeon’s medico-legal work. However, analysis of the career and life of one Scottish police surgeon—Henry Duncan Littlejohn—indicates that the experience gained from the regular practice of medical jurisprudence was vital in developing and maintaining an authoritative medico-legal presence both within and outside the courtroom. In particular, historical records suggest that the surgeon of police collaborated with constables, detectives and prosecutors to facilitate the investigation and prosecution of violent crime. Sometimes this collaboration would be procedural and routine, such as directing officers to remove bodies to the mortuary of the police chambers. At other times, these practitioners worked closely with the local force and legal officials in more complex and influential ways that blurred the professional and practical boundaries between medicine, policing and criminal investigation. Moreover, the nature of Scottish procedure in suspicious deaths also forced the police surgeon to co-operate with a diverse range of medical practitioners in the examination and certification of death, injury and lunacy in the Scottish city. Sometimes, resolving inconsistencies in medical evidence could be a core part of the police surgeon’s role when consulted by the Crown. On other occasions, working in partnership with other doctors to establish an informed, robust and objective medical opinion of a case was vital to the consolidation of the police surgeon’s medico-legal authority.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kelly-Ann Couzens
    • 1
  1. 1.University of Western AustraliaPerthAustralia

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