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A man’s chest is cut open at the beginning of his autopsy, 1915.

A man’s chest is cut open at the beginning of his autopsy, 1915.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London

Autopsy is also referred to as a postmortem. The word derives from the Ancient Greek for ‘see for yourself’. This is a surgical operation performed by trained medical personnel called pathologists, with the purpose of determining cause of death. A body is examined both outside and in. Tissues and organs are removed, examined and analysed. Pathologists also establish the general state of health before death, and determine whether any medical diagnosis or treatment given was correct and appropriate. Autopsies are a common medical practice, but have become popularly associated with the crime of murder.

The practice is recorded in the ancient world, although constraints on the anatomical dissection of human bodies restricted it in many cultures. The most notable early autopsy was performed on Roman Emperor Julius Caesar, who was stabbed to death as he entered the Senate. However, the practical origins of the modern autopsy lie with Renaissance anatomist Giovanni Morgagni (1682-1771). He produced the first major work on the subject, The Seats and Causes of Disease Investigated by Anatomy, in 1761.

Autopsies have contributed greatly to medical knowledge as they provide information not easily attainable by other means. They are also integral to legislation and regulations associated with modern death. Autopsies are ordered when a death is unexpected, suspicious or if there are uncertainties about its exact cause. A significant minority of autopsies reveal death was caused by something other than what was expected.


J Burton, ‘A Bite into the History of the Autopsy: From Ancient Roots to Modern Decay’, Forensic Science, Medicine, and Pathology, 1/4 (December 2005), pp 277-84

J Snyder Sachs, Time of Death: The Story of Forensic Science and the Search for Death's Stopwatch (London: William Heinemann Ltd, 2002)



The branch of medicine concerned with disease, especially its structure and effects on the body.