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

  • Spilsbury, Bernard
  • Archives and manuscripts

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 library at Wellcome Collection 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 Wellcome:

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.

Material held elsewhere:

1000 Forensic medicine microscopic slides of Sir Bernard Spilsbury, [1900]-1930, notably relating to the Crippen murder, 1910, Seddon case, 1912, 'Brides in the Bath' murders, 1915, Mahon case, 1924 are held by the Royal London Hospital Archives and Museum, which also holds his diaries, 1944-1945 (reported to the National Register of Archives, 2011).

The Galleries of Justice, Nottingham, hold Spilsbury's cards relating to the following cases: Rex v F Seddon, murder of Elizah Mary Barrow 1912; Rex v George Joseph Smith, wilful murder of Miss Mundy, Alice Burnham and Margaret Lofty 1915 'The Brides in the Bath Murders'; Rex v Voisin and Roche, murder of Emilienne Gerard 1917; Rex v F. H. C. Field, murder of Irene Munro 1920; Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson murdered by two IRA gunmen Reginald Dunne (aka John O'Brien) & Joseph O'Sullivan (aka James Connelly) 1922; Rex v H. R. Armstrong , poisoning of his wife 1922; Rex v Bywaters and Thompson, murder of Mr Thompson 1922; Rex v Patrick Mahon, murder of Miss Emily Kaye 1924 (also report on judicial hanging of Mahon); Rex v J. P. Vacquier, murder of Alfred Poynter Jones 1924; Rex v J. Norman H. Thorne, murder of Elsie Cameron 1925; Hilary Rougier possible suicide morphia 1926; Rex v John Robinson, murder of Minnie Bonati 1927 (Charing Cross Trunk Murder); Rex v S. H. Fox, murder of his mother 1929; Rex v W. H. Podmore, murder of oil company agent Vivian Messiter 1929; Rex v A. A. Rowse, murder of an unknown man 1930 (Blazing Car Murder); Rex v Elvina Barney, unlawful (accidental) murder of Michael Stephens 1932; Brighton Trunk Murder 1934; Max Kassel international criminal nicknamed 'Red Max' murdered by Robert Vernon 1936; Rex v Leonard Richardson acquitted of murder of Pamela Coventry 1939; Rex v R. S. Buckfield, murder of Mrs Symes 1942; Vera Page (victim) murder unsolved.

Also material in The National Archives and the archives of the various institutions at which Spilsbury held posts.

Terms of use

This collection has been catalogued and is available to library members. Some items have access restrictions which are explained in the item-level catalogue records. The collection was previously open. It was reassessed in June 2012 and certain items subsequently given access restrictions which are explained in the item-level catalogue records.

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Accession number

  • 1608
  • 1660
  • 1918