By Freeha Anjum
Despite our many advancements in medicine, the topic of mortality still remains. Death is something many people fear, yet nobody can avoid. Luckily for us, though, the likelihood of death at a young age, and the number of ways you can die in the comfort of your own home, is drastically decreased. The average life expectancy just a few centuries ago averaged around 30 years of age — although this number is lowered heavily due to infant mortality, it can’t be denied that there were many more fatal diseases, and much less capable doctors to help fix them at the time. This led to lots of interesting deaths, where coroners and medical examiners were the stars of the show. In this article, we’ll explore the history of these professions through the years.
Note: This is part 2 in an article series titled “The History of Medicine”.
Early Origins of Coroners
The concept of coroners began in England, in the Article of Eyre of 1194, but some believe it was earlier, such as in 1066 after the Norman Conquest. The office of the coroner was then adopted by other countries who had become under England or United Kingdom law. The initial job of coroners was to serve as a check to the sheriff in the royal interest, to collect death tax from the deceased, and otherwise protect the king’s property.
Coroners looked into sudden deaths and determined their roots — and were often more legally qualified than they were medical.
Laws and Coroners
There was a specific procedure in place for unexpected deaths, and strict punishments when these rules were broken. Oftentimes, slip-ups happened and someone was financially burdened as a result. Because of this, many people chose to ignore dead bodies or hide them, and some even dragged bodies to different villages.
Hiding bodies from the coroner’s office was a heavy offence, and when no individual could be uncovered as the culprit, the village the body was found in would receive a fine. Similarly, failure to keep the corpse safe until a coroner could inspect it was a criminal offence, and some areas built special walls around corpses to avoid fines.
Introduction of Medical Examiners & The System Today
Nowadays in Canada, there is a Coroners system and Medical Examiners system. The coroner system works on investigative, administrative, judicial, and preventative tasks, whereas the medical examiners focus on medical elements. Both systems collect evidence to determine the medical cause of a death, and coroners come to judicial decisions and ways to prevent similar deaths for the future. In some states of America, the sheriff or justice of peace performs the job of a coroner. Coroners are legally permitted to investigate any suspicious death in their area, and are nowadays both legally and medically qualified. This varies across the world, however, with some coroners only needing a high school diploma and others being highly educated and trained professionally.
In sum, the role of coroners changed slightly over the years, and for more effective methods, medical examiners became more apparent to perform autopsies to gain insight into unexpected deaths. Both medical examiners and coroners play a key role in determining the cause of death — which is incredibly important in understanding medicine and preventing similar fatalities in the future.