Tag Archives: Robert Christison

A trip to Edinburgh

A puir wee sleekit ghoastie at Canongate kirkyard

I’d wanted to go on holiday to Edinburgh for ages, and was rather pleased that I could combine it with the writing of my book, Fatal Evidence. But what does the biography of a Kent-born English forensic scientist who lived most of his life in London have to do with Edinburgh, you ask?

Well… the story of forensic science in Britain starts in Edinburgh. Although medicine and science had been used to crack crime in Britain before, there was no formal teaching of ‘medical jurisprudence’ (the intersection of medicine and the law) in this country; the British had to look to the Continent. It was at the University of Edinburgh in 1789 that the first lectures in Britain had been given on the subject. Andrew Duncan, the first lecturer in the subject, had an uphill struggle to see his specialism recognised, despite his urging of its importance:

…to every medical practioner, who is liable to be called upon to illustrate any question comprehended under it before a court of justice.

The first professor of medical jurisprudence at Edinburgh was Duncan’s son. It was only an elective course, rather than compulsory, and medical students just weren’t that interested.

In 1822, Dr Robert Christison, a 25-year-old Edinburgh native, took the chair and became professor of medical jurisprudence. His uncle helped him to the position but, despite such outrageous nepotism, Christison was actually very good at the subject. His background in both medicine and chemistry made him an ideal candidate – as did Alfred Swaine Taylor’s same background when a chair of medical jurisprudence came up at Guy’s Hospital in London.

Christison in 1856. at the trial of William Palmer.

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