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The Doctor is in.

Doctor Then has just received notice that someone is lodging a fraudulent insurance claim against her. Grrrrr. [Hackles rise] Dr Then wishes their pants would spontaneously ignite, but in the abscense of an ability to control fire (or pants), she has instead been drawn to pondering criminality. And medical history has a fair bit to say on that subject.

The most famous contributor to the notion that criminality could come under the purview of medicine was Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909), an Italian. A one-time army surgeon and asylum keeper, Lombroso was of the opinion that criminal tendencies were written on the body, and that a trained observer would be able to tell a career criminal from such details as the slope of the person’s forehead, or the posititioning of his or her (Lombroso recognized female criminality) ears. In his published works, he assembled a gallery of uglies who demonstrated the criminal features he had in mind. Criminals, said Lombroso, were throw-backs to a more primitive stage of human evolution. Just look at those long arms! Those hairy knuckles! (Arthur Conan Doyle was well versed in Lombroso’s theories–his hero, Sherlock Holmes, often does battle with deformed villains, and reads people’s habits–including moral persuasion–from their bodies.)

Lombroso's photos of criminals, allegedly showing physical signs of their criminality (as opposed to simple ugliness)

Lombroso’s photos of criminals, allegedly showing physical signs of their criminality¬†(as opposed to simple ugliness)

Lombroso’s interest in the shape and distinctions of criminals’ bodies laid foundations for attempts to accurately identify arrested criminals. In the late 19th century, it was a major difficulty for the police to positively identify people who had been arrested and charged on previous crimes. Without a solid means of knowing ‘This person is Mr Black who has been arrested for burglary four times before’, people charged with a repeat offense could simply give a false name–‘I am Mr White’–and skip on off, leaving their long record of housebreaking behind them.

To try to deal with the identification problem, it was standard procedure in London for example, for policemen to drop by the exercise yard outside the criminal courts. From a special viewing platform, officers would look and see if there was anyone up on a charge who was–as the phrase goes–already ‘known to the police’.

In the 1880s, using Lombroso’s work as the starting point, the French police officer Alphonse Bertillion developed a system known as Bertillionage as a way of assigning a person a unique identifier. Bertillionage used bodily measurements–the length of the arm, the circumference of the skull and so forth. When crunched in a formula, the measurements would make a code that was, Bertillion believed, characteristic of a single individual. Knowing a criminal’s Bertillionage classification could therefore be used to identify him again. (The system didn’t work particularly well – it took ages to measure up a person and was not nearly accurate enough anyhow.) Fingerprinting eventually replaced Bertillionage from the start of the 20th century.

The twentieth century offered new medical insights on the issue of where criminality came from and what it looked like when it arose. In the 1920s, New York physicians Max Schlapp and Edward Smith suggested that criminal behavior was often caused by malfunctioning endocrine glands – pancreas, pituitary, suprarenals, and most especially the thyroid gland. Endocrinology–the medical specialty that deals with glands–was an emerging field at that time, and the excitement about ‘all things glandular’ was comparable to what genetics holds for us today.

With great enthusiasm, glands were thought to hold the keys to solve aging, sexual dysfunction, delinquency, obesity, mental impairment and…crime. Dr Schlapp in fact appeared in a number of court cases as an expert witness for the defense. In one case, young Archie Daniels (22), of New York, had taken his fiance out to an icecream parlor and a romantic walk and then shot her through the head with his .22 pistol. The girl had, it turned out, been about to leave him for an older and wealthier man. Dr Schlapp testified that Archie had been the victim of his glands. The worry over his fiance’s infidelity had made his glands secrete excessively. His excessive glandular activity had lowered his ‘explosion point’, lessening his ability to control himself, and making him act out on violent impulses. Shooting the girl wasn’t his fault. His glands made him do it, your Honor. Archie avoided the electric chair as a result of Schlapp’s testimony.

Now of course medicine still tries to help the courts today in the tendentious and difficult job of deciding between the mad and the bad, the culpable and the not responsible, the I-wasn’t-there and the blood-all-over-his-hands. The criminal mind fascinates, abhors and puzzles us today in equal measures, and spawns a thousand cop and forensic pathologist/psychologist/anthropologist/forensic-anything TV shows. But where does that leave us with the non-romantic, liar-liar-pants-on-fire insurance fraudsters of the type who are trying to get a new bumper bar out of me? What should one say to them? All I can say is, while my insurance company may indeed fold and give you that new bumper bar, you’ll still have a neanderthal forehead, gorilla arms, lopsided ears and a pulsating thyroid. So hah de hah!

Till next time, stay well,

Dr Then

Interested? Want more?

On fingerprinting and its history

Sengoopta C. 2004, Imprint of the Raj, New York: Pan Macmillan.

Cole S. A. 2002, Suspect Identities, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

On glands (although not about their connection with criminality – more in regard to.. shhhhh.. SEX and glands)

Sengoopta C. 2006, The Most Secret Quintessence of Live: Sex, Glands, and Hormones, 1850-1950, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hamilton D. 1986, The Monkey Gland Affair, London: Chatto and Windus.

On medicine and the law

Mohr J. C. 1993, Doctors and the Law, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Watson K. D. 2011, Forensic Medicine in Western Society, London: Routledge.

Theories ‘in action’

Doyle A. C. 1887-1904, The Celebrated Cases of Sherlock Holmes, 1981 Edition, London: Octopus Books.