Three titles in Indian forensic history

Aconite (credit: Pinterest)

While doing research on the history of poisons and forensic science in colonial India, I’ve come across some strange and fantastic primary sources. Here are three published books I can’t forget. All are available on the Internet Archive:

  1. J. Fayrer, The Thanatophidia of India, being a description of the Venomous Snakes of the Indian Peninsula, with an account of their poison on life; and a series of experiments (London: J. & A. Churchill, 1872): This is the most extensive and classic published source on “ophiology”,” the science of snakes, for colonial India. The online version is in black and white. In its original full-color form, though, this book is a luscious Audubon-style masterpiece. Watch out for the huge two-page spreads of coiled snakes! Each one is more eye-popping than the last.
  2. R. N. Chopra,  Indigenous Drugs of India: their medical and economic aspects (Calcutta: The Art Press, 1933): a door-stopper of a reference work on the botanical riches of South Asia, including potential poisons like datura and aconite and traditional plant-based remedies for snake- and scorpion bite. This book bridges European and South Asian medical traditions. It is incredibly useful for anyone interested in particular plant poisons and their historical uses.
  3. E. von Hofmann, Atlas of Legal Medicine (Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders, 1898): This one is  *not* for the easily queasy. The original was in German. The English translation seems to have become a classic reference work across the English-speaking world. I first learned of it while reading Alfred Swaine Taylor’s Principles and Practice of Medical Jurisprudencethe classic English handbook on forensic medicine. Taylor removed all of his images at one point so he could pack more text in, and referred the reader to Hofmann for pictures. A student in my undergraduate “Medico-Legal History” course introduced me to The Big Book of Celebrity Autopsies. That book is odd, but it is nothing compared to Hofmann.