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Spilsbury, Sir Bernard (1877-1947), Forensic Pathologist

Spilsbury, Bernard
  • Archives and manuscripts
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About this work


The bulk of this collection consists of a series of index cards, 1905-1946, containing the details of nearly 7000 pathological investigations performed by Sir Bernard Spilsbury. These represent an unknown proportion of the vast number of autopsies and other investigations performed by Spilsbury during the course of his career. They do not include many of his most famous cases as witness for the Crown in cases of murder or manslaughter, some of which are held in other repositories. Further details can be found in the section-level description of PP/SPI/A

The accession to the collection of a small selection of Spilsbury's "little black books" from the latter years of his career (1941-1947) confirms the supposition that the cases on the index cards were abstracted from the notebooks with a view to writing a textbook on forensic pathology (uncompleted at the time of his death), since some of these notes include inserted index cards with the heading (name, date, place of autopsy, cause of death) already written in but the more detailed notes not yet added. These notebooks form a significant addition to the understanding of Spilsbury's working methods since they were clearly more immediate records of his autopsies than the index cards. It is possible, given the fire damage to these volumes and to other items in this accession, that they are the survivors of a much longer sequence which did not survive.

Their provenance is unclear. It seems probable, however, that they were at some point in the possession of one or other of Douglas G. Browne and E.V. Tullett, authors of the first biography of Spilsbury, Bernard Spilsbury : his life and cases (1951), as among the other papers in this accession a publisher's report on possible legal issues with the text of this work was found (PP/SPI/E.4) along with some general biographical notes.

In addition to the notebooks, the new accession includes some material on various issues in which Spilsbury was professionally interested, including several files on causes of poisoning, a few of his lectures and other writings, a little personalia and correspondence, and publications by other hands, presumably used for reference by Spilsbury



Physical description

11 boxes, 1 oversize folder



A. Index cards of pathological investigations conducted by Spilsbury, 1905-1946

B. Notebooks: "PostMortem Records", 1941-1947

C. Matters of professional interest, 1905-1945, n.d.

D. Lectures and other writings, c. 1920s-1930s, n.d.

E. Personalia, c. 1880s-c.1950s

F. Reference materials by others, 1896-1946

Acquisition note

Purchased at Sotheby's, July 2008 (Acc 1608); further material (Acc 1660) given to the Wellcome Library in May 2009 by Richard Wakely; purchased at Sothebys July 2012 (Acc 1918)

Biographical note

16 May 1877 born in Leamington Spa, son of James Spilsbury, manufacturing chemist
Educated at Leamington College, University College School, Manchester Grammar school, and Owens College, Manchester, then Magdalen College, Oxford
1899 BA in natural science, and then began medical studies at St Mary's Hospital London, where he came under the influence of three notable forensic specialists
1905 qualified in medicine
Worked under Augustus Joseph Pepper as joint assistant demonstrator of pathology (1904–5) and as pathologist and morbid anatomist in 1907, succeeding Pepper upon the latter's retirement in 1908
3 September 1908 married Edith Caroline Mary Horton, with whom he had 4 children
He became trusted by the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police as an advisor in forensic pathology
He also lectured on his areas of specialism at St Mary's, St Bartholomew's Hospital, University College Hospital medical school, the London School of Medicine for Women and St Thomas's
1922 his post under the Home Office formalised
1923 knighted
1931 elected FRCP
1933 presidential lecture on illegal abortion to the Medico-Legal Society
17 Dec 1947 committed suicide by gas in his laboratory

There are entries for Spilsbury in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and Munk's Roll of Fellows of the Royal College of Physicians, and obituaries appeared in The Times and the major medical journals. There are at least 3 biographies, which tend to focus on the more high-profile aspects of his career as an expert witness in famous murder trials: Douglas G Browne and E V Tullett, Bernard Spilsbury: His Life and Cases (London: George G Harrap and Co Ltd, 1951); Colin Evans, The Father of Forensics: the Groundbreaking Cases of Sir Bernard Spilsbury, and the Beginnings of Modern CSI (New York: Berkeley Books, 2006); Andrew Rose, Lethal Witness: Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the honorary pathologist (Stroud: Alan Sutton, 2007). See also article by Ian Burney and Neil Pemberton, 'Bruised Witness: Bernard Spilsbury and the Performance of Early Twentieth-Century English Forensic Pathology' (pdf), Medical History, 2011, 55

Related material

In the Wellcome Library:

MS.7655/169 1 signed autograph postcard; MS.8435 includes an autograph; SA/PHY/Z/4/9/79, photograph c. 1930; WA/HMM/CO/Chr/C.37 includes letter to Spilsbury requesting items for Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, 1926.

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