Lacassagne, who taught at the University of Lyon, is noted for working closely with other scientific disciplines (such as psychology and sociology) and believed that criminality was nurtured, not by biology, but instead by the individual's environment and experiences. He established protocols for autopsies, recognized the importance of determining when a homicide victim had been raped and was the first to link bullets to the weapons that fired them, thus kick starting the science of ballistics. [Editor's note: Those interested in reading more about Lacassagne and the birth of modern forensic medicine may wish to read Douglas Starr's excellent book, "The Killer of Little Shepherds" (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2010).]
There are so many excellent modern forensic pathologists that it's impossible to name them all, or even give a proper tip of the hat to their contributions, but it's not an exaggeration to say that without their efforts, homicide investigations would have remained in the Dark Ages.
The game changer: DNA
DNA, or deoxyribose nucleic acid, is probably the most misunderstood, as well as highly publicized, forensic tool in modern times. No one can deny its value; DNA has led to the exoneration of the wrongly accused and helped identify both perpetrators and victims. It's led to the solving of cold cases, resurrected hope for the families of the missing and allowed medical examiners and police to identify remains found decades ago.
The discovery of DNA took place when Friedrich Miescher, a Swiss scientist and researcher, isolated the substance in 1869. Scientists continued to study both DNA and its role in human genetics, but its form was not well understood until 1953 when two researchers, Francis Crick, an Englishman, and American James Watson, unlocked the double helix structure of the molecule. The men won the Nobel Prize for their work.
In the mid-1980s DNA typing was introduced as a complement to criminology. British geneticist Dr. Alec Jeffreys developed a method to use DNA to confirm human identity. Restriction fragment length polymorphism (RFLP), the method Jeffreys devised, was instrumental in resolving several cases, including a double homicide. The subsequent discovery by Dr. Kary Mullis that DNA could be replicated resulted in the polymerase chain reaction or PCR, which allows smaller numbers of DNA molecules to be increased in a short period of time. That meant more highly degraded evidence could be reliably analyzed for DNA.
Scientists worldwide continue to expand on the uses of DNA, but databases such as the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) and NamUs (National Missing and Unidentified Persons System) implement current knowledge to resolve crimes and put names to faces and criminal acts.
Making tomorrow better
How many criminal investigators watching an autopsy have considered the uncountable number of hours that have gone into the historic art of determining whether a death resulted from foul play?
For many hundreds of years medical students were forbidden to dissect human bodies, giving rise to grave robbers and black market corpses. Those who studied death were pioneers in a field that often required extraordinary dedication and determination.
According to author Douglas Starr, the corpses of French murder victims in the late 1800s were often autopsied on the spot, sometimes on their own kitchen tables or in fields lit by lanterns, even in cases where the deceased had putrefied and decayed. There were no masks, no exhaust systems, no pristine autopsy tables, and no gloves or aprons to protect the physician from body fluids. The French professor, Lacassagne, dictated that doctors carrying out autopsies also digitally check for signs of anal rape in their victims.
Like other forensic sciences, forensic medicine, as those dedicated French physicians proved more than a century ago, is not for the weak-willed or easily discouraged. They are the men and women who give those who fight crime the arsenals they need to do their jobs.