History of Forensic Science

I am currently working on a book project that sits at the intersection of the history of law, science, and medicine.  “Fear of the False: Forensic Science in Colonial India” explores notions of truth, trust, and justice in empire.

Here is a summary:

Between 1840 and 1947, the British Indian state created institutions for the scientific detection of crime. India’s new experts in toxicology, blood stains, handwriting analysis, and explosives were supposed to cut through the perjury and forgery of “mendacious natives” to extract objective scientific truth in the service of a neutral vision of justice. However, the new forensic science invited increasingly complicated and conflicting answers to the questions, “what is truth?” and “what is justice?” This study reveals that a system initially structured along fault lines of racial difference expanded into a site for competing conceptions of truth and justice among men of science and of law, both British and Indian.

I’ve published this article on the Imperial Serologist and planted animal blood. This piece was awarded the 2020 Law and Society Article Prize. You can listen to this Flash Forward podcast with Rose Eveleth to hear more.

I also wrote a journal article on abortion that focuses on forensics: “Abortion in South Asia, 1860-1947: A medico-legal history,” MAS 55:2 (2021), 371-428. An Open Access version is available to download here. This 2-minute video sums up this article. I also did this podcast for The Swaddle on abortion and forensics in colonial India.

Works in progress includes articles on: (1) coroners and death investigation, (2) suicide and poison, and (3) expert witnesses in matrimonial cases, all in colonial India.

For some blogposts related to the project:

I’ve also published this opinion piece on the centenary of the end of WWI, “the chemists’ war” (e-mail me if you’d like the full article: mitra.sharafi@wisc.edu): The History of Poison & Stereotypical Narratives. And here is a piece I published in Himāl Southasian in 2020 on contagious disease and forensics: Pandemic or poison? How epidemics shaped Southasian legal history

(updated on 24 Sept. 2022)