Student on trail of crime-solving medical experts

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Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The men who sought justice for poisonings, murderous cadaver-trading, baby-farming, infanticide, shootings and rapes that happened more than 100 years ago in Scotland are being tracked down by a young Baldivis woman.

Kelly Ann Couzens (24), who is doing a PhD at The University of Western Australia, is about to travel to Edinburgh to chase up some of the world's first medical forensic expert witnesses who helped solve crimes that horrified a nation.

She is more interested in the witnesses than the atrocities, although the fan of crime fiction is not averse to reading details of cases that enthralled newspaper readers of the day and are still infamous today.

Kelly's PhD is a critical analysis of medical testimony and expertise in the Scottish Court of Justiciary from the 1820s to the 1890s, when wife-killer Eugene Marie Chantrelle roamed the impoverished city streets not far from where William Burke and William Hare murdered victims in order to sell their corpses to anatomists 50 years earlier.

She is particularly interested in four physicians who were so well-known for their forensic abilities some of them were cheered when they entered packed courtrooms.  They were Robert Christison, Thomas Stewart Traill, Douglas Maclagan and Henry Duncan Littlejohn.  They solved some of the most famous cases of the day - and sent the perpetrators of the most heinous crimes to their deaths.

Kelly said the history of forensic medicine in England and America was well documented, yet relatively little had been written about the discipline in 19th century Scotland, the home of forensic medicine in universities in the English-speaking world.

To redress the balance, she is planning to spend two months at Scotland's National Archives, poring over court records, post mortem books and letters.

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