Forensic Medicine

The forensic medicine , one also called legal medicine , medical jurisprudence or legal medicine is the branch of medicine that applies all medical knowledge and biological necessary for solving the problems posed by the law . The forensic physician assists judges and courts in the administration of justice , determining the source of injuries sustained by an injured person or the cause of death by examining a corpse . It studies the medical aspects derived from the daily practice of the courts where they act as experts . It is closely linked with medical law . The medical specialist in the area is called a coroner or medical examiner .


Commonly called forensic medicine (as a forum : because it was in the antiquity in the forums or courts where this discipline was carried out), there are currently two schools: the Latin school , where medical examiners are trained, and the Anglo-Saxon school , where Forensic doctors are trained.

Scope of action

Medical examiners are trained to perform multiple procedures, including:

  • Dictamination of professional responsibility , ie determining whether or not your medical colleagues acted with due responsibility.
  • Determination of the causes, mechanism and manner of death, when these are of violent origin.
  • They assist in the administration of justice, assisting the judge to resolve doubts arising from the actions of medical and biological phenomena – when they are present – when an alleged criminal act is committed.

In criminal investigation , the forensic physician’s performance is essential. It goes – together, or not – with the Judge of Guard and Prosecutor’s Office when the corpse is removed after a death suspected of criminality or violence; Examines and collects external signs of the place of the events, determines the probable time of death and performs the necropsy of the corpse; Macroscopically examines the three cavities (cranial, thoracic and abdominal) and samples for referral to centers specialized in forensic sciences, laboratories.


It is a science based on evidence, teaches and applies the Galilean method , uses the Cartesian method , with which is called the expert method , which recommends: not admit as truth what is not evidential or proven, ordering it from the simple to The complex, and enumerating without omitting anything. All independently of the problem under study and analysis. 2


Legal medicine encompasses the following subdisciplines, raised from a merely descriptive point of view (since nothing is foreign to legal medicine and all help and contributes to its purposes):

  • computer forensics
  • Forensic anthropology
  • Forensic Odontology
  • Forensic toxicology
  • Forensic psychology
  • Forensic Genetics
  • Forensic Biology
  • Thanatology
  • Ballistics
  • Medical law
  • Necropapiloscopy
  • Legal Medicine of Somatic Diseases
  • Psychiatric legal medicine
  • Assessment of body damage
  • Medical-legal assessment
  • Forensic Photography
  • Forensic Laboratory



The first classical definition of the signs of death is due to Hippocrates in his book De morbis , where he describes the modifications of the face in the immediate postmortem period: Hippocratic facies .

Legal medicine appears for the first time in Germany in the sixteenth century : the Carolina Law promulgated by Charles V in 1532 forces medical experts (essentially barbers-surgeons of the time) to intervene on corpses in case of voluntary or involuntary homicide, Imposing a penalty proportionate to the injuries. In 1536 , Francis I of France wrote for the Duke of Brittany an ordinance organizing the beginning of legal medicine. 3

Jean Jacques Bruhier made the first work on premature burials in 1742 , collecting 189 alleged burial cases in life. As a consequence, around 1793, the waiting burial chambers were created in Germany and Italy . In this same century the German scientist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg described the figures of Lichtenberg , an important finding that later would have relevance as a sign of fulguration in the study of corpses. In addition, Xavier Bichat made interesting descriptions about the process of death and elaborated what would later be known as Bichat’s tripod of vital functions: circulation, respiration and nerve function. Also, Pierre Hubert Nysten enunciated the laws of cadaver rigidity that bear his name. Jean-Jacques Belloc 4 is considered the creator of legal medicine in France .

Nineteenth and twentieth centuries

The nineteenth century revolutionized the forensic sciences, due to the numerous advances that took place. In Europe, the pioneer of legal medicine is the Minorcan scientist Mateo Orfila , known as the father of toxicology , who prominently published a Treaty of legal exhumations in 1830 and a treaty of legal medicine in 1847 . 5 Among the outstanding figures in legal medicine and events happened in this period are:

  • Jean Zuléma Amussat (1796-1856), French urologist surgeon, described the sign that bears his name.
  • The assassinations of Burke and Hare in 1828 revolutionized the press and public opinion of the time. Forensics of the time had a major challenge to overcome.
  • Gabriel Tourdes (1810-1900), defined the period of uncertainty surrounding the death of the subject, which bears his name.
  • Pedro Mata Fontanet (1811-1877), creator of forensic or legal medicine in Spain.
  • Victor-Auguste-François Morel-Lavallée (1811-1865) described the serous effusion that bears his name. He has left numerous publications in the field of traumatology.
  • Eugène Bouchut (1818-1891), a French physician and pediatrician, described direct auscultation in cardiac paralysis.
  • Jean Pierre Mégnin (1828-1905), veterinarian and medical-legal entomologist, among other works described cases of rapid mummification.
  • Henri Legrand du Saulle (1830-1886) psychiatrist, developed his work in Paris. During his youth he worked for Benedict Morel. He made a scheme to differentiate between vital and postmortem lesions.
  • Cesare Lombrosso (1835-1909), professor of Italian legal medicine.
  • Paul Brouardel (1837-1906) suggested that SIDS was in many cases due to laryngeal spasms or capillary bronchitis.
  • In 1871 John Brendon Curgenven described the first case of simultaneous death in twins.
  • Alexandre Lacassagne (1843-1924), medical examiner and professor of the Faculty of Medicine of Lyon . He described rigor mortis .
  • John Glaister (1856-1932), Scottish forensic doctor, enunciated the formula that receives its name.
  • Richard Paltauf (1858-1924), an Austrian pathologist and bacteriologist, implicated the thymus in sudden infant death in what he termed status thymo-lymphaticus. He described the dilution of the ecchymoses in the dead by submersion, clearer with the scattered edges.
  • The Italian Pompeo Rivalta creates the test of Rivalta (1895).
  • Robert Williams Wood (1868-1955), physicist and inventor of Wood ‘s glass .
  • Hippolyte Morestin (1869-1919), professor of anatomy and French surgeon.
  • Stefan Jellinek (1871-1968), Austro-British occupational physician, specialized in electrical accidents, describing the electro-specific injury.
  • Camille Léopold Simonin (1891-1961), director of the institute of legal medicine in Strasbourg.
  • Albert Ponsold (1900-1983), German pathologist, described compensatory hydremia.

In France , legal medicine in the current sense of the term was born in the late nineteenth century by physicians such as Léon Thoinot , Victor Balthazar , Paul Brouardel , Alexandre Lacassagne or Auguste Ambroise Tardieu . 6Legal medicine entered the university field in 1877 with the election of Tardieu in the position of head of conferences of practical legal medicine in the Faculty of Medicine of Paris . 7

Spanish-speaking world

In the twentieth century in the Spanish- speaking world include, among others, the following figures:

  • Antonio Piga y Pascual (1879-1952), a medical examiner and member of the Royal Academy of Medicine, described the radioscopy in cardiac paralysis, as well as the sign of the traumatic leap and that of the quadruple fracture.
  • Juan Antonio Gisbert Calabuig (1922-2000), professor of legal medicine and toxicology (1960-1987), described the uncertainty principle and the four phases of death.
  • Eduardo Vargas Alvarado (1931-), professor of Costa Rican legal medicine, has published important works of legal medicine, as well as the sign that bears his name, the hemorrhage of the ethmoid found in the drowned.

The legal and forensic medicine in Spain

Main article: Forensic medicine in Spain

In Spain, legal medicine is developed in two areas:

  • Forensic medicine proper, whose exercise depends and develops directly in the administration of justice .
  • Other fields, which include university professorships in legal medicine and private practice (mainly as an independent professional or for an insurance company ).


  1. Back to top↑ Angel, Patito, Jose . Forensic and Legal Medicine .
  2. Back to top↑ Guido Berro Rovira, Legal medicine lessons . Carlos Álvarez, ed. 2005, Montevideo, Uruguay.
  3. Back to top↑ Professeur Dominique Lecomte, director of the Medical-Légal Institute of Paris, «La médecine légale», émission Avec or sans rendez-vous par Olivier Lyon-Caen sur France Culture 20 mars 2012
  4. Back to top↑ Cours de médecine légale judiciaire, théorique et pratique ( Staff: 2e édition de 1811)
  5. Back to top↑ La Police scientifique
  6. Back to top↑ Denis Darya Vassigh (1999). «Les experts judiciaires à la parole de l’enfant maltraité. Le cas des médecins légistes de la fin du XIXe siècle ‘. Revue d’histoire de l’enfance «irrégulière» . P. 97-111.
  7. Back to top↑ Chauvaud, Frédéric (2010). «Le théâtre de la preuve. Les médecins légistes dans les prétoires (1880-1940). Revue d’Histoire des Sciences Humaines (in French) 22 (1). P. 79. doi : 10.3917 / rhsh.022.0079 .