January 21, 2000
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v2.1 Reference

Bodies of Evidence

Medicine and the Politics of the English Inquest, 1830-1926

In Bodies of Evidence, Ian Burney offers an important reinterpretation of the role of the scientific expert in the modern democratic state. At the core of this study lies the coroner's inquest—the ancient tribunal in English law held to account for cases of unexplained death. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, representatives of "progressive" medical science waged a determined campaign to align the methodology of the inquest with a medical model of investigation and explanation. Yet at the same time the inquest was framed within a second powerful and innovative discourse, one based on an appeal to the inquest as a time-honored bulwark of English popular liberties. Bodies of Evidence takes these parallel visions of the inquest as the point of departure for a wide-ranging examination of the historical process of negotiating expert authority in the public realm.

By insisting on the dynamic interplay between the medical and political visions of the inquest, Burney calls into question many of the basic assumptions about the rise of science as a model for socially authoritative knowledge. Among this study's central and innovative claims is that traditional narratives of the rise of expertise in the nineteenth century obscure the tension between the needs of modern governance on the one hand and the politics of expanding popular participation on the other. Along the way, Bodies of Evidence elegantly evokes the workings of one of the more curious institutions of English civil society, an institution whose somber duties before death were performed with surprising (and occasionally unnerving) vitality.

Bringing the concerns of the cultural historian to bear on the histories of medicine and the law and integrating the perspectives of the "new" political history and the history and sociology of scientific knowledge, Bodies of Evidence is a theoretically nuanced and empirically rich account that will have a genuinely cross-disciplinary appeal.

"It is not surprising that spokesmen for an emerging medicolegal community waged a sustained campaign to frame the inquest first and foremost as a tool of applied medical inquiry. But the modern inquest was simultaneously framed within a dynamic contemporary discourse of 'historical' popular liberties. The mere fact of its having survived from at least the twelfth century (some claimed for it an earlier, Saxon pedigree) lent the inquest the trappings of an exemplary embodiment of the 'genius of English reform.'"—from Bodies of Evidence

About the Author

Ian A. Burney is a Wellcome Research Lecturer at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, University of Manchester.


"[A] fascinating story of society endeavoring to find an acceptable modern way to manage the aftermath of death... We now have a comprehensive and strong contextual account of the development of the modern inquest."

- Teresa Sutton - Legal History

"Burney presents a convincing and sophisticated argument."

- Anne Crowther - American Historical Review

"The book promises to enthrall not only the medical historian and philosopher but also today's doctors contemplating their relationship with the rest of society."

- Michael F. Maltese - British Medical Journal

"This is an important book, deserving to be read by historians of politics and of the state as well as of medicine. It should stimulate research, for there is much still to be done on the activities of coroners, the political uses of inquests, and the changing political and jurisprudential role of expertise in the development of the modern state."

- Christopher Hamlin - Medical History

"Ian A. Burney's book, Bodies of Evidence, examines how medical experts displaced the public in investigating suspicious deaths in England. Today, the displacement seems inevitable, the result of increased specialization, the rise of professional elites, and modern governments premised on a bureaucracy of experts. Bodies of Evidence, in a rich cultural mosaic, shows that the public ceded its role only reluctantly and uneasily."

- Laura B. Gilbert - New York Law Journal

"[A] theoretically sophisticated study."

- Elisabeth Cawthon - Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"Burney has avoided a dry, institutional history of the inquest by weaving together abstract concepts of openness, democracy, progress, knowledge, power, the body, ritual, and space with concrete discussions of law, medicine, and politics."

- Lori Williamson - History: Reviews of New Books

"[A] theoretically nuanced work offering rich and original insights."

- Doody's

"This book provides an engaging and remarkably thorough history of neurology studded with bonbons of fascinating historical insights... Considering the current debates surrounding the provision of home care services and the roles to be played by informal care givers this book is timely and 'a must' for anyone interested in a true reflection on this topic."

- Shelly A. Martin - Canadian Bulletin of Medical History

"As accessible as it is acute, Bodies of Evidence is a model of culturally and politically engaged, intellectually uncompromised historical scholarship."

- Roger Cooter - Victorian Studies

"Carefully researched and comprehensively referenced study."

- Linda Bryder - History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences


"An exciting book at the forefront of new interdisciplinary work in the social history of medicine."

- Roy Porter

"Using stories of deaths in custody or under the surgeon's knife, statistical surveys of mortality and pestilence, the reputation of anaesthesia or forensic pathology, this remarkable account links histories of medicine, law, and politics. Burney brings these scenes back to life to show how issues of democratic control over knowledge and power were debated during the nineteenth century—and to motivate an informed examination of the origins of our own interests in reliable and publicly accountable knowledge."

- Simon Schaffer, University of Cambridge

"Burney's account not only exposes the 'poor man's court' as an early nineteenth-century invention, but reveals it as one in which experts needed to be seen to act with a degree of transparency in order to gain public legitimacy. His analysis of the inquest beautifully illustrates fundamental tensions and ambiguities inherent in the formation of modern democratic states. Yet in mapping the boundaries that came to be drawn between popular and esoteric understandings of the inquest—indeed, the boundaries between the dead and the living—Burney sacrifices none of the intrinsic fascination of this most peculiar of English institutions. As accessible as it is acute, Bodies of Evidence is a model of modern historical scholarship."

- Roger Cooter
Johns Hopkins University Press
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9780801862403 : bodies-of-evidence-burney
176 Pages
$53.00 USD

Other Titles by Ian Burney

Global Forensic Cultures

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Murder and the Making of English CSI

Ian Burney and Neil Pemberton
Oct 2016 - Johns Hopkins University Press
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