HHH column: Forensic culture, a comparative approach by the FORCE team (UU)

The HHH column is a blog in which History, Health & Healing members share their thoughts: on research, current affairs, and anything to do with medical history. Each author will invite a new author to participate in the conversation. Last time, Eva Andersen, doctoral researcher at the University of Luxembourg, passed the pen on to the team of the FORCE project at Utrecht University.

by Volha Parfenchyk, Lara Bergers, Pauline Dirven, Sara Serrano Martínez and Willemijn Ruberg

In 1912, an Amsterdam court heard the case of Jannetje J., a servant girl who was charged with killing her new-born baby. Several doctors who performed the autopsy of the baby were summoned to the trial to testify on the cause of death. In addition, the involved doctors were asked to give their expert opinion regarding the mental state of Jannetje. Although differing in the exact formulations, the doctors agreed that Jannetje was not fully “conscious”. Psychiatrist Dr. Frederik Meijers wrote in his report that Jannetje was suffering from a “state of sickly excitement of the nerves, which decreases her accountability to a minimum, but it cannot be thought to be completely absent”. Jannetje was eventually sentenced to a short prison term of three months. 

The Amsterdam court of appeal on the Prinsengracht that examined the case of Jannetje J. in 1912.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

At first sight, there seems to be nothing unusual in this case – except for the fact that mothers killing their babies could be seen as ‘unusual’ by definition. Yet, there was another element in this case that was perhaps no less striking. The case of Jannetje J. is seen by historians as the first case in Dutch history when a mental illness of the mother accused of killing her new-born child was mentioned by forensic experts in the courtroom. To be sure, the musings of Dutch experts about pathological conditions underlying such horrible acts as infanticide had already been there for at least one hundred years. Dutch psychiatrists, for example, similar to their French, English and German colleagues also discussed the nature and boundaries of mania puerperalis, or insanity during and after birth. Yet, the reference to a mental illness entered the Dutch courtroom only one hundred years later.

What could explain this lag? More generally, why does expert knowledge circulate unevenly between different epistemological sites, for example, between the pages of medical and forensic journals and the public space of the courtroom? What role could sociocultural norms, legal traditions and media representations of science play in the acceptance, contestation or rejection of forensic science and medicine in the court of law? These questions lie at the heart of the ERC project “Forensic Culture. A Comparative Analysis of Forensic Practices in Europe, 1930-2000” conducted at Utrecht University. The project is led by historian Willemijn Ruberg and composed of three PhD students (Lara Bergers, Pauline Dirven, Sara Serrano Martínez) and one postdoc (Volha Parfenchyk). Our project is comparative in nature (it compares four countries, namely the Netherlands, Spain, England, and Russia) and it takes on board a wide range of forensic practices, from psychiatry to DNA fingerprinting, in the period from 1930-2000. Besides infanticide cases, it also focusses on the cases of rape and (ordinary) murder. Theoretically it is inspired by the existing research into the history and sociology of knowledge that emphasizes the social fabric of all practices of knowledge production. In addition, it aims at developing the notion of “forensic culture”, a flexible but analytically powerful concept that could serve as a helpful tool for analysing forensic practices and their social, cultural and historical embeddedness.

The FORCE project started in September 2018 and is already halfway through. In August 2021 we will hold our first international conference which promises to be an exciting opportunity to share ideas about the history of forensic science and medicine. We invite everyone to visit its virtual premises. For more information, please visit our website.

The FORCE team passes the pen on to Lisanne Walma, postdoctoral researcher at the Open University.