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New book from forensic medicine: 100 years of death and disaster

Murders, disasters and assaults have defined the Department of Forensic Medicine as a workplace. The book 100 års retsmedicin. Til gavn for de levende (in English: 100 years of Forensic Medicine: For the Benefit of the Living) qualifies the picture of forensic medicine that the majority of people have thanks to crime series and books – but which only a very few people have access to.

From suffocated babies in the 1920s, poisoning in the 1930s to research into sudden infant death syndrome (also called cot death) and knowledge about synthetic drugs today.

Forensic medicine is a multi-facetted subject and the book 100 års retsmedicin. Til gavn for de levende (100 years of Forensic Medicine: For the Benefit of the Living) – which will be published on 5 April and the background for which is the Department of Forensic Medicine at Aarhus University – shows the outside world that forensic medicine is more than a forensic pathologist in a lab coat looking down at a corpse.

The book is an offshoot of the 100-year anniversary of the state-appointed forensic pathologist for Northern Jutland (which was itself the precursor for the Department of Forensic Medicine) in 2016, in which the former head of the department and state-appointed forensic pathologist Markil Gregersen (now 84 years-old and still active) compiled a large amount of historical material and gave lectures about the work of state-appointed forensic pathologists in Jutland. For this reason, he was also the author Jakob Kehlet’s wingman during the research phase. As well as being the books author, author Jakob Kehlet is also a writer and journalist.

“My prior knowledge of forensic medicine was mostly based on crime stories, so Markil’s archive, superb memory and research-based approach to the subject has been an invaluable contribution to writing this book,” says Jakob Kehlet.

The book is divided into chapters for each decade under themes that were important for forensic medicine at that particular time: Carbon monoxide poisoning in the 1950s, when there was a fatality from carbon monoxide poisoning every day on average. In the 1960s there were many traffic accidents with 1,200 deaths a year. In the 1980s it was cot death which affected between 110-120 children each year. These three themes saw forensic pathologists and forensic chemists play a major role in battling these tragic and meaningless deaths by utilising knowledge and irrefutable documentation about how the deaths occurred and how they could be prevented.

Cranium reconstruction

Some of the stories that Jakob Kehlet ran across while delving into the history of forensic medicine left a big impression on him.

One was the story of rural postman Villum Villumsen who shortly before Christmas in 1932 left on what would turn out to be his final post round. On his bike ride through the deserted Kompedal Woods near Silkeborg in central Jutland he was shot three times and killed. When his body was found the next day the letters were gone and his wallet lay empty next to him. The murder and robbery was a big story which filled the newspapers while the public followed the investigation very closely. So closely in fact that they trampled around the scene of the crime and quickly decided on the guilt of the most obvious suspect. Reading through the forensic pathologist’s case files, Jakob Kehlet could see how meticulously the forensic pathologists went about describing how the shots were fired.

“The documents from the case are a good example of the contribution made by forensic pathologists to the police investigation with detailed descriptions of bullet trajectories and a reconstruction of the holed cranium. This provided a robust basis for the trial and that was needed as many ordinary people had already passed judgement,” says Jakob Kehlet. 

Plane crash made its mark

The book’s content from 1963 has Markil Gregersen as an eye-witness. He had just begun work as a young medical doctor and apart from a couple of postings to training positions elsewhere, he has been at the department ever since. From 1990 to 2005 as state-appointed forensic pathologist and department head. Today he is emeritus professor and concerns himself with the history of forensic medicine.

He has seen a great deal, but some cases have still imprinted themselves in his memory. For example the plane crash north of Hirtshals in 1989 in which all the 55 people on the plane died. Markil Gregersen led the forensic work.  

“It was a really big and extensive operation because there were so many fatalities and they all had to be recovered and identified. There was also naturally enough a lot of press coverage, both because of the tragedy and the question of why the plane had suddenly crashed,” says Markil Gregersen.

He is pleased with the publication of the book and sees it as testimony to an important social task.

“Even though forensic medicine receives a lot of public attention, very few people actually know about the scope of the tasks involved. For example, that far more living people are examined than dead. The book provides a more in-depth and proper insight into the wide scope of the subject,” he says.

The book is published by Aarhus University Press.


Jakob Kehlet
Author, journalist
(+45) 2258 8867

Christian Lindholst
Head of Department of Forensic Medicine, Aarhus University
(+45) 2093 9223