Trayvon Martin and the ancient art of autopsy

The Roman statesman Julius Caesar was murdered by rival senators in the year 44 BC. An autopsy revealed Caesar was stabbed 23 times, though only the second blow, to the chest, was lethal.

A funeral director recently made national news when he revealed that in preparing Trayvon Martin’s body he found no bruises or signs of fight.

Further details lie in the autopsy report but the state prosecutor is unwilling to release this evidence to the public, leaving the nation wondering about crucial details in a tragic case. Of course, it’s not the first time an autopsy has attracted so much attention in a criminal investigation, but just where and when did the idea of probing a dead body for clues on how a person died come about in the first place? Autopsy comes from the ancient Greek word autopsia, meaning “to see for oneself”. The practice began 2300 years ago, with a man named Herophilus of Chalcedon.

Herophilos was born in 335 BC in Asia Minor but spent his career in Alexandria, which was home to the world’s greatest medical school and also one of the few cities that allowed the dissection of human cadavers. Herophilos performed them publicly, so that he could explain what he was doing to the fascinated crowds that gathered around. He was regarded as the world’s first anatomist and wrote nine books on medicine, including On Pulses, which explored blood flow and Midwifery, which discussed the phases of childbirth. Among other things, Herophilos dispelled the notion of the four humors, which said that an imbalance between bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood led to all sickness and disease. He worked out a standard method for measuring a pulse (it involved the use of a clepsydra, or water clock), was the first person to differentiate between the cerebrum and the cerebellum, determined it was the brain not the heart that housed the intellect, discovered the ovum, described the optic nerve and eye and expounded upon something called the calamus scriptorius, which he believed was the seat of the human soul. The autopsy was one of Herophilos’s most lasting legacies. While dissections were performed in the centuries to follow, it was not for another 1600 years that medical practitioners would again start to dissect bodies specifically for the purpose of finding what had gone wrong with them.

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One of the earliest high-profile autopsy cases was that of the great Roman statesman Julius Caesar, who was murdered by rival senators in the year 44 BC. The plotters had presented Caesar with a petition concerning his exiled brother just as he was entering the senate. Cimber, a senator who had initially been one of Caesar’s strongest supporters, grabbed the statesman’s shoulders and yanked his tunic. “Why, this is violence!” Caesar cried. From behind a man produced a dagger and struck at his neck. Within moments a throng of more than 50 assassins were thrashing Caesar. He tried to flee but, blinded by blood, tripped and fell. Men continued stabbing him as he lay defenseless on the lower steps of the portico. An autopsy revealed Caesar was stabbed 23 times, though only the second blow, to the chest, was lethal. Caesar’s body was cremated and on the site of his cremation a temple was built. A life-size wax statue of Caesar was later erected there, it displayed all 23 stab wounds.

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Fast forward a few millennia to one of the most controversial autopsies of all time, that of Marilyn Monroe. The actress was found dead in the bedroom of her Brentwood, California home on August 5, 1962. A toxicology report showed Monroe’s blood contained somewhere between 38 and 66 capsules of Nembutal, enough to kill 10 people. The autopsy, done by Dr. Thomas Noguchi of the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office, found no residue of Nembutal in her stomach or intestines, indicating the drug had not been swallowed. Noguchi asked a toxicologist to test the blood, liver, kidneys, stomach, urine and intestines, which would have revealed exactly how the drugs got into Monroe’s system. But somehow the toxicologist destroyed many of the organs without examining them. Blood samples and medical photographs also disappeared, making a more detailed investigation into the cause of death impossible. Noguchi had to make do with the simple observations he had. He ruled out intravenous injection of the drugs, leaving an enema or suppository as the only means of delivery. Both were considered unlikely. In the end Noguchi’s official autopsy report stated that the drugs were swallowed. He listed the cause of death as “acute barbiturate poisoning” and deemed it a “probable suicide”.

One thinks Herophilos could have done better. Though the early anatomist, who promoted exercise and a good diet, probably never would have condoned the actresses’ lifestyle in the first place. “When health is absent,” said Herophilos. “Wisdom cannot reveal itself, art cannot manifest, strength cannot fight, wealth becomes useless, and intelligence cannot be applied.”

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