The world’s first forensic scientist


Our setting is a rural Chinese village. A man is found stabbed and hacked to death. Local investigators perform a series of experiments with an animal carcass looking at the type of wounds caused by different shaped blades and determine that the man had been killed with a sickle. The magistrate calls all of the owners of a sickle together. The ten or so suspects all deny murder. The sickles are examined, all are clean with nothing to give away being a murder weapon. Most in the village believe the crime won’t be solved. The magistrate then orders all of the suspects to stand in a field and place their sickle on the ground before stepping back. They all stand and wait in the hot afternoon sun. It’s an unusual sight. At first nothing happens. Eventually a metallic green fly lands on one of the sickles. It’s joined by another. And another. And another. The sickle’s owner starts to look very nervous as more and more flies land on his sickle and ignore everyone else’s. The magistrate smiles. He knows that the murderer would clean his weapon. But there would be tiny fragments of blood, bone and flesh invisible to the human eye but not beyond a fly’s sense of smell. The owner of the sickle breaks down and confesses. He’s arrested and taken away.

I think it’s safe to say that we love forensic science dramas. They’re all of a type: low lit metallic labs, ultraviolet lights, an array of brilliant yet troubled scientists and detectives dredging the depths of human depravity. Forensic science is the cornerstone of our criminal justice system, a vital weapon in fighting crime. Yet the tale of the flies and the sickle didn’t take place in 2019. It didn’t even take place this century. It was 1235 CE.

This account, the first recorded example of what we would now call forensic entomology, was recorded in Collected Cases of Injustice Rectified a Chinese book written in 1247 by Song Ci, the world’s first forensic scientist. This is his story.

Song Ci from a Chinese Stamp (From China Post)

Song Ci was born in 1186 in southeast China. He was born in a period of China’s history called the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE). This period saw a number of political and administrative reforms including developing the justice system to create the post of sheriff. Sheriffs were employed to investigate crime, determine the cause of death and to interrogate and prosecute subjects. With this developed a framework to investigate crime.

The son of a bureaucrat he was educated into a life of scholarship. First training as a physician he found his way into the word of justice and was appointed judge of prisons four times during his lifetime.

Bust of Shen Kuo (From Lapham’s Quarterly)

This was a time of polymaths. Song Ci was inspired by the work of Shen Kuo (1031-1095) a man who excelled in many different areas of philosophy, science and mathematics. Shen Kuo argued for autopsy and dissected the bodies of criminals in the process proving centuries held theories about human anatomy wrong. In the UK such a practice would not be supported in legislation for another seven centuries.

Song Ci built on Shen Kuo’s work, observing the practice of magistrates and complying recommendations based on good practice. This would form his book Collected Cases of Injustice Rectified; in all fifty-three chapters in five volumes. The first volume contained an imperial decree on the inspection of bodies and injuries. The second volume was designed as instruction in post-mortem examination. The remaining volumes helped identify cause of death and the treatment of certain injuries.

Of note the book outlines the responsibilities of the official as well as what would be considered now routine practices such as the importance of accurate notes and the need to present during the post-mortem (including not being put off by bad smells). There are procedures for medical examination and specific advice on questioning suspects and interviewing family members.

Forensically, the richest part of the text is within the section titled "Difficult Cases". This explains how an official could piece together evidence when the cause of death appears to be something else such as strangulation masked as suicidal hanging or intentional drowning made to look accidental. A pharmacopoeia is also provided to make obscure injuries appear. There is a detailed description of determining time of death by the rate of decomposition and whether the corpse has been moved.

Whilst forensic science has obviously progressed since the work of Song Ci what is striking is how the foundations of good forensic work have not changed. He wrote about determining self-inflicted wounds and suicide based on the direction of wounds or the disposition of the body. He recommended noting tiny details such as looking underneath fingernails or in various orifices for clues of foul-play. Standard procedure today.

Song Ci died in 1249 with little heraldry. However, in modern times there has been an increased appreciation of his work. Just think how few 13th century scientific publications could have been as relevant as his after nearly a millennium.

There is an Asian maxim that “China is the ocean that salts all the rivers that flow into it”. All of us try to contribute in some way to the river of life. Any practitioner or appreciator of forensics must recognise the tremendous contribution Song Ci and his contemporaries made to progress the flow of justice.

Thanks for reading

- Jamie

Sweating Sickness: England’s Forgotten Plague


The history of medicine is littered with diseases which impacted on the course of humanity. The Black Death. Smallpox. Influenza. HIV/AIDS. Each one has left its own mark on our collective consciousness. And yet there is an often overlooked addition to this list: sweating sickness. This disease tore its way through Tudor England, killing within hours, before disappearing as quickly and mysteriously as it arrived. In it’s wake it left it’s mark, a nation changed. The identity of this disease remains a matter for conjecture to this day. This is the story of England’s forgotten plague.

Background to an outbreak

It’s summer 1485. An epic contest for the throne of England is reaching its bloody climax. In a few weeks on August 22nd at the Battle of Bosworth Henry Tudor will wrest the crown from King Richard III and conclude the Wars of the Roses. Away from the fighting people start dying. As contemporary physicians described:

“A newe Kynde of sickness came through the whole region, which was so sore, so peynfull, and sharp, that the lyke was never harde of to any mannes rememberance before that tyme.

These words take on added impact when you remember the writer would have experienced patients with bubonic plague. What was this disease “the like was never heard of”? Sudor Anglicus, later known as the English sweating sickness, struck quickly. The French physician Thomas le Forestier described victims feeling apprehensive and generally unwell before violent sweating, shaking and headaches began. Up to half of patients died, usually within 24 hours. Those who lived longer than this tended to survive. However, survival did not seem to offer immunity and patients could be struck multiple times. 15,000 died in London alone. We don’t have an exact figure for its mortality but it is commonly estimated at 30-50%.

Outbreaks continued beyond 1485 and the reign of Henry VII and into that of his grandson Edward VI in five further epidemics; 1508, 1517, 1528, and 1551, each time in summer/autumn. The disease remained limited to England apart from 1528/29 when it also spread to mainland Europe.

John Keys

The principle chronicler of the sweat was the English doctor John Keys (often Latinised to John Caius/Johannes Caius) in his 1552 work ‘A Boke or Counseill Against the Disease Commonly Called the Sweate, or Sweatyng Sicknesse.’ This is how know so much about how the disease presented and progressed.

Key’s noted that the patients most at risk of the disease were:

“either men of wealth, ease or welfare, or of the poorer sort, such as were idle persons, good ale drinkers and tavern haunters.

Both Cardinal Wolsely and Anne Boleyn contracted the disease but survived. Wolsely survived two attacks. Anne’s brother-in-law William Carey wasn’t so lucky and died of the sweat. The disease’s predilection for the young and wealthy led to it being dubbed the ‘Stop Gallant’ by the poorer classes.

Key’s was the physician to Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. As he was born in 1510 his work on the first epidemics of sweating sickness was based on prior reports of the illness; it could therefore be said he had performed a kind of literature review. Unlike le Forestier his lack of first hand experience and the fact he focused mostly on noble deaths has led to criticism. However, Keys was clear that the sweat was different to plague and other conditions. This goes with le Forestier and other physicians at the time.

The impact of the sweat permeated Tudor culture. Even in 1604 William Shakespeare was concerned enough about sweating sickness to write in his play ‘Measure by Measure’:

“Thus, what with the war, what with the sweat, what with the gallows, and what with poverty…

How the sweat changed history

Henry Tudor was an ambitious man with a fairly loose claim to the throne of England: his mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, was a great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, fourth son of Edward III, and his third wife Katherine Swynford. Katherine was Gaunt’s mistress for 25 years before they married and had 4 children already before she gave birth to John Beaufort, Henry’s great-grandfather. If this sounds complicated it is. Henry was not a strong claimant and his chances had been further weakened by an Act of Parliament in 1407 by Henry IV, John of Gaunt’s first son, which recognised his half-siblings but ruled them and their descendants ineligible for the throne.

Henry Tudor’s ancestry from http://www.livimichael.co.uk/succession-the-players

Henry needed alliances if he was going to get anywhere. He attempted to take the crown in 1483 but the campaign was a disaster. He was running out of time and needed to kill Richard III in battle if he was going to be king. He accepted the help of King Charles VIII of France who provided Henry with 2000 mercenaries from France, Germany and Switzerland. This force crossed the English Channel on 7th August 1485. In was in this army that the sweat first appeared. There is debate about whether this was before or after the Battle of Bosworth but Lord Stanley, a key ally of Richard III and a contributor of 30% of the king’s army, used fear of sweating sickness as a reason to not join the royal forces in battle. It’s therefore possible that sweating sickness was seen before Bosworth and helped shape the course of English history.

Arthur Tudor (1486-1502)

Sweating sickness may have had a further impact on the Tudors and their role in our history. Henry VII’s first son, Arthur the Prince of Wales died in 1502 aged 15. Sweating sickness has been suggested as the cause of his sudden death. His death saw Henry VII’s second son, also called Henry, become first in line to the throne which he took in 1509 as King Henry VIII.

What was the sweat?

Unlike other plagues the identity of sweating sickness remains a mystery to this day. The periodicity of the epidemics suggests an environmental or meteorological trigger and possibly an insect or rodent vector.

A similar disease struck Northern France in 1718 in an outbreak known as ‘the Picardy sweat’. 196 local epidemics followed until the disease disappeared in 1861 with its identity also a mystery. Interestingly, the region of France where the Picardy sweat arose is near where Henry Tudor’s group of French, German and Swiss solders amassed prior to the Battle of Bosworth.

Several diseases have been proposed as the true identity of the sweat. Typhus (not as virulent), influenza and ergotism (don’t match the recorded symptoms) have been suggested and dropped. In 1997 it was suggested that a hantavirus could have been responsible. Hantaviruses are spread by inhalation of rodent droppings and cause similar symptoms to sweating sickness before killing with bleeding and complications to the heart and lungs. Although rare they have been identified in wild rodents in Britain. If we remember how the sweat seemed to strike following summer when rodent numbers would be at their highest and add in the poor sanitation of Tudor times then hantavirus is a strong candidate.

We’ll likely never know the true identity of sweating sickness unless it re-emerges. If that’s the case based on the terror it inspired to Tudor England we should be glad to keep it a mystery.

Thanks for reading.

- Jamie

The Wound Man: From Textbook to Emblem and Hollywood


If you think you’re having a bad day just remember The Wound Man. Stabbed, bludgeoned and shot yet still standing tall it’s safe to say that his image has been on a journey over more than half a millennium to becoming truly iconic. This journey has taken him from the pages of a medieval textbook to Hollywood via James Bond and the Royal College of Emergency Medicine.

Gunpowder made its way to Europe during the 14th century, probably along the Silk Road trade route with Asia. This meant that as well as the traditional war wounds from blades and arrows doctors were also seeing the effects of cannon and shrapnel. Doctors needed some form of reference to help with the myriad new forms of trauma they might encounter.


Along came Johannes de Ketham/von Kirchheim, a German physician living and working in 15th century Italy. In 1491 he published Fasciculus Medicinae (the little bundle of Medicine) in Venice; basically the Oxford Handbook of Medicine of its time complying medical knowledge as it was. Written in Latin, the original edition consisted of six illustrations with accompanying text. The world’s first ‘Wound Man’ was one of these illustrations. The illustrations and sections were as follows (diagrams are from the 1495 edition):

Urine and blood letting

  • Urine section: the ‘little bundle’ starts immediately with a section on how a physician could use the colour and smell of a patient’s urine to diagnose their condition

  • Bloodletting/phlebotomy section: a full male figure showing arteries and veins and where the patient could be bled

  • Zodiac figure’: another full male figure annotated with when blood can be taken from certain areas of the body depending on the time of year

‘Zodiac Man’

Obstetrics and Gynaecology

  • Gynaecology and obstetrics: including a pregnant anatomical female figure, and texts related to sexuality, generation, and disorders particular to women

  • ‘Wound Man’: this section illustrated various specific injuries and how to treat them

The original ‘Wound Man’

‘Disease Man’

  • ‘Disease Man’: labelled with various diseases and illnesses

The Fasciculus Medicinae was published again in 1495, 1500, 1509, 1513 and 1522 by which time its information was outdated and it was replaced as a prominent textbook. However, the concept of the ‘Wound Man’ continued with new injuries matching the advancements of military technology.

Possibly the most famous example of a ‘Wound Man’ was included in Feldbuch der Wundarznei (Fieldbook of Surgery), written by the Austrian field surgeon Hans von Gersdorff in 1531.

‘Wound Men’ continued to be used in textbooks until the 17th century, their forms changing with the artistic fashions of the day.

‘Wound Man’ from Feldbuch der Wundarznei (Fieldbook of Surgery), written by Hans von Gersdorff in 1531

The iconography of the ‘Wound Man’ led to its inclusion in the official blazon for the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, adopted on January 24, 1997. Used on the dexter side, it was chosen to show the injured patient in contrast to the healthy man on the sinister side. He represents how emergency medics are trained to treat patients with all kinds of injuries and injury mechanisms as well as the sheer variety seen in trauma patients.


‘Wound Men’ have been potent icons in fiction as well. ‘The Wound Man’ was a potential title for Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel ‘Dr No’, published in 1958, rejected partly because of the possibility people would mispronounce it as ‘wound up’ rather than a wounded man. In the 1981 novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris the serial killer Hannibal Lector murders a patient and displays them with multiple injuries similar to a ‘Wound Man’ illustration in one of his books. This was also included in NBC’s television series Hannibal.


It’s safe to say that Medicine is full of symbols. ‘Wound Men’ are one of the most enduring as symbols of education, traumatic injury and an example of Medicine’s roots over the centuries.

Thanks for reading

- Jamie

How Saline Earned its Salt


The other day in Resus as I was putting up a bag of fluids for a patient I wondered how long it was we’d been using what seems an incredibly simple but important intervention for our patients. “Putting up a bag of fluids” is a core part of the resuscitation of an unwell patient to the extent it just rolls off the tongue.

Turns out the history of IV saline goes back to Victorian Britain and the cholera pandemics. The Industrial Revolution brought unprecedented numbers of people to the cities, especially London where the population trebled between 1815 and 1860. In many places sewage disposal was not much changed from Tudor days and so struggled to cope. By and large the response was simply to tip the waste into cesspits or into the nearest river hence ‘The Great Stink’ of 1858 which brought the city of London and even Parliament to a standstill.

These conditions were perfect for cholera, a disease brought to Britain from the Indian subcontinent in 1832. A secretory diarrhoea spread via the faeco-oral route it ‘enjoyed’ 5 pandemics between 1817 and 1896. Cholera presents with ‘rice water’ diarrhoea (up to a litre an hour) with a mortality rate up to 70% in untreated patients largely due to extreme dehydration.

Cholera challenged medics at the time and inspired some great work such as that of John Snow on Broad Street in 1854 who rejected the miasmic theory of spread and instead proposed there was a causative agent and that contaminated water was the source. In the same year the causative agent was identified by Filippo Pacini in Italy and was first grown in culture in 1884 by Robert Koch working in Egypt and India. Fluid replacement with intravenous fluid was another such innovation.

By 1832 the work of Dr W B O’Shaughnessy had concluded that the blood of cholera patients had lost most of its water as well as its saline contents and the Lancet recommended “the injection into the veins of tepid water, holding a solution of the normal salts of the blood.” That same year Thomas Latta, a physician working in Leith, Scotland attempted to treat a patient with cholera doing just this.

He first tried treating patients with fluids inserted rectally but found that not only did it not work it actually seemed to make their vomiting and diarrhoea worse. So then he tried intravenous injection. He wrote describing how over half an hour he injected 6 pints (3.4 litres) of fluid in the basilic vein of an elderly lady with cholera: “soon the sharpened features, and sunken eye, and fallen jaw, pale and cold, bearing the manifest imprint of death’s signet, began to glow with returning animation; the pulse returned to the wrist…” Sadly he left the patient in the hands of the house surgeon who did not repeat the treatment as the patient deteriorated again and so she died 5 hours later.

That same year Dr Robert Christison wrote to the Dutch government advising them on this new treatment. He described 37 cases treated with intravenous fluids of whom 12 survived. He mentioned certain risks including air embolus, phlebitis and the potential risks of introducing so much fluid to a patient but generally recommended the treatment. Looking back there were probably other risks too such as secondary infections from unsterile injections they wouldn’t have been aware of.

In these early days there was no standardisation of what the fluid should contain with some physicians using egg whites with their fluid and some adding albumin. It wasn’t until Dr Sydney Ringer’s work in the 1880s that an optimum physiological solution was found. The dangers of potential fluid overload were identified quite early on as well with S.K. Mujumbar of Port Blair, India writing in 1916 of the need to identify cholera patients who actually need fluids so as not to cause “an extra amount of work on the already weakened and embarrassed heart”.

0.9% Saline has since become a staple of modern medicine and is included on the World Health Organisation’s list of essential medicines last published in 2017.

Further pandemics of cholera occurred in 1899-1923 and 1961-1975 by which time advances in public health medicine meant Western Europe was unaffected. The last outbreak in the USA took place in 1910-1911. Cholera remains endemic in many countries in Africa and has continued to re-surface whenever sanitation is affected such as in Haiti following Hurricane Matthew. Diarrhoeal disease is the second highest cause of mortality and leading cause of malnutrition in the under-fives worldwide. The WHO describes diarrhoea as “preventable and treatable”. Re-hydration whether orally or intravenously remains the mainstay of treatment.

So whenever we are putting up a bag of fluid for a patient we are continuing a tradition first started by Thomas Latta injecting 6 pints of fluid into the basilic vein of his patient in Leith.

Thanks for reading

- Jamie