Forensic Science and Networks of Knowledge 1800-1940

On this page


Module code


This module aims at introducing students to the complexities of the historical developments in forensic science technologies. The successful student will acquire an understanding of the highly complex interactions which sometimes promoted, sometimes hindered progress in forensic science technique in the 19th and first half of the twentieth century. This involves asymmetrical access to knowledge; exchange, withholding and suppression of information, and with nationalist, colonial and non-Western aspects shaping knowledge and technologies.

The course will focus on the following topics as key themes:

Science and crime investigation in the 19th and 20th centuries: Histories of collaboration and competition. - Production of evidence for criminal prosecution: different requirements for evidence in court leading to dissimilar discoveries.

  • Traditional techniques: bones and teeth; medical evidence.
  • Human identification: Linking bodies to individuals or collective entities (Lombroso, ideas of ‘the born criminal’ and Criminal Tribes).
  • Poisonous substances and their trancing: traditional knowledge and new discoveries in chemistry across the globe: Datura, opium, arsenic.
  • Bertillonage and anthropometrics;
  • A global history of fingerprinting
  • Photography as evidence: mugshots crime scene photography;
  • Development of forensic technologies around entomology, soil and dust.
  • New paths of scientific identification: Blood, DNA, Biometrics, the role of the State and surveillance.


This module is assessed as follows:

  • 4,000 word project (60%)
  • 2,000 word analysis (40%)

Intended learning outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Students will deepen their ability to investigate and synthesize how forensic science technologies developed during the 19th and 20th century, with circulation of knowledge across the globe, but also with competition at national and international levels and often with suppression of non-European contributions or minimization of their influence. Through this lens, students should acquire the ability to assess and compare key developments in the science and technology shaped by colonial and imperial contexts.

Subject-specific practical and intellectual skills and attributes.

Students undertaking this module will be required to critically engage with broad interdisciplinary themes, including a range of contemporary, historical and theoretical materials from history and criminology.  The information from variety of historical sources and criminological theories will develop the students’ ability to assess the quality and validity of the material, and use it to discover new knowledge.

By comparing and contrasting developments in different countries across Europe and the Indian subcontinent the students will acquire a better understanding of cultural specificities but also the circulation of knowledge and approaches to the identification of criminals and suspect groups and individuals.

Transferable, employability and enterprise skills and attributes

MLitt Crime Writing and Forensic Investigation is designed to appeal specifically to aspiring crime writers. This historical component is designed to provide this group with deeper insights into the cultural and scientific context of crime investigation in the 19th and 20th century in European and non-European contexts. The course, if taken by students doing the History MRes is designed to provide student with the necessary skills to undertake research into the cultural history of criminalistics, crime detection and criminal justice.

Directly during group discussions, and more broadly throughout the material they are exposed to as part of the module, students will develop the ability to professionally evaluate the historical material relevant to their individual project.


Dr Anja Johansen


The course consists of ten two-hour seminars. Individual consultation with support for coursework will be available to students on demand.