Dr Katherine Watson

Reader in History

School of History, Philosophy and Culture

Role

Katherine D. (Cassie) Watson was educated at the Universities of Western Ontario and Leeds before completing her DPhil in modern history at the University of Oxford. Her work has been supported by grants and fellowships from the Wellcome Trust, British Academy, and Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. She has been teaching at Oxford Brookes since 2004.

Dr Watson is a historian of forensic medicine and crime in Britain, focusing on the period between 1700 and the First World War. Her research is interdisciplinary, drawing on law, medicine and social history of crime. She has recently completed a monograph on medico-legal practice in England and Wales 1700-1914, drawing on case reports of interpersonal violence. Her research interests are reflected in much of her teaching.

Teaching and supervision

Courses

Modules taught

Undergraduate modules:

  • Bloody Histories: Crime and Violence in the West: Uncovers the history of crime, violence and punishment in Britain, Europe and America.
  • Crime and Punishment through the Ages: Introduces the history of crime and criminal justice in early modern Britain, from highway robbery to homicide.
  • Jack the Ripper and the Victorian Underworld: Uses the notorious Ripper murders of 1888 as a prism to explore the culture of crime and punishment in Victorian Britain.
  • History and Documents: Find and interpret historical documents. Concrete help for writing your dissertation. Create your own project with expert support.
  • Independent Study Module: Research a topic of your choice, using primary and secondary sources, and work one-on-one with an expert in the field.
  • Forensic Medicine in Western Society [Advanced Study in the History of Crime]: Explores forensic medicine and science past and present, to uncover the links between crime, criminals, doctors and law.
  • Debating Issues in Health, Past and Present [Advanced Study in Social, Cultural and Medical History]: Students gain debating skills, focusing on current issues in healthcare from a historical perspective.
  • In Cold Blood: Violence in the Modern Era [Advanced Study in the History of Crime; led by Prof. A-M. Kilday]: Explores murder and mayhem in twentieth-century Britain and America to understand how violence has influenced society and its views/approaches to crime and punishment.

Postgraduate:

  • Behaving Badly: Crime, Deviance and Civilization: Examines a range of themes in the history of law, crime and bad behaviour since 1500, from domestic violence to homicide.

To understand our criminal justice system, it is crucial to understand the long-running historical debate on the nature, incidence and causes of crime, as well as the way in which medicine has played an active part in shaping legal, political and social change. Dr Watson’s specialist teaching focuses on the origins of these foundations of modern legal practice, while her broader teaching considers the wider socio-political contexts within which these practices developed.

Supervision

Dr Watson has supervised MA dissertations on various aspects of the history of crime and forensic medicine. Her PhD supervisions include a completed thesis on establishing the identity of the unknown dead in England and Wales 1800-1934 (Fraser Joyce, 2013), and on medical themes in the early (18th-century) novel (Mary Gifford, 2019).

Ongoing projects include homicide in nineteenth-century Lancashire (Louise Roy), nineteenth-century police detectives (Angela Buckley), and the development of forensic medicine as an academic discipline (Christopher Milroy). She welcomes applications from students interested in the history of forensic medicine and science, as well as the history of crime in Britain and the West since the seventeenth century.

Research Students

Name Thesis title Completed
Angela Buckley The Science of Sleuthing: The Evolution of Detective Practice in English Regional Cities, 1838–1914 Active
Christopher Milroy The development of forensic medicine as an academic discipline in the UK: An examination of its teaching and literature to 1914 Active
Louise Roy Mapping Murder: a Socio-legal investigation of Homicide in Lancashire, c.1816–1914 Active

Research

History of crime in Britain; Western forensic medicine and science in the post-medieval period.

Katherine Watson's doctoral thesis investigated the role of scientific expertise in the late Victorian period. The theme of ‘expertise’ recurs in her current work, which focuses on topics where medicine, crime and the law intersect. Her main areas of research are:

  • The history of crime in Britain since the early 18th century (especially a) criminal poisoning and related offences, b) homicide, and c) vitriol throwing), with a particular emphasis on medico-legal issues concerning these offences, the gender and social background of victims and perpetrators, the responses of the legal system, investigative practices, and regional variations (in particular, comparing England and Wales) in these trends.
  • The history of medicine in post-1700 Britain, particularly the development of forensic medicine and the careers of its practitioners.
  • The history of chemistry post-1750, especially in relation to toxicology and forensic techniques.

She is currently working on a book on the history of acid throwing, an unusual form of assault, from the early eighteenth century through the 1970s. This strand of her research will be expanded and developed in future work, which will include further detailed study of assault as a form of interpersonal violence. She has also returned to the history of poisoning crimes, focusing on its incidence in Scotland.

Her research interests have been reflected in appearances in television documentaries since 2005, most recently in Murder, Mystery and My Family (S5 Ep5, 2021). 

You can listen to a podcast - Moments In Medicine #9: Before CSI: The Origins of Forensic Medicine and Science - and she blogs with two colleagues in North America - you can read our posts on the history of law, crime and justice at Legal History Miscellany.

Groups

Publications

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Professional information

Memberships of professional bodies

  • British Society of Criminology
  • Economic History Society
  • Social History Society
  • Society for the Social History of Medicine
  • SOLON: Promoting Interdisciplinary Studies in Crime and Bad Behaviour
  • SSHA Criminal Justice / Legal History Network

Conferences

Public lecture

  • 'Violent Crime in Victorian and Edwardian Camden', Camden History Society, 19 September 2013

  • 'Before CSI: Crime, Medicine and Science in History', Royal Society of Medicine, 3 February 2016

Selected conference papers (since 2010)

  • '"In my opinion it was a child at full time": Infanticide in English and Welsh medico-legal practice, 1730-1914', Body and Mind in the History of Medicine and Health, European Association for the History of Medicine and Health, Utrecht (September 2011).
  • '"Put to the brink of eternity": Wounding in British law and society, from mayhem to offences against the person', Crime, Violence and the Modern State III: Law, Order and Individual Rights - Theory, Intent and Practice, Lyon (September 2011).
  • 'Prosecuting homicide on the coroner's inquisition during the long eighteenth century', 21st British Legal History Conference, Glasgow (July 2013)
  • 'The impact of medical evidence on criminal process in England and Wales, 1730-1914', 22nd British Legal History Conference, Reading (July 2015)
  • 'Investigating homicide in England: the medical contribution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries', European Social Science History Conference, Valencia (April 2016)
  • 'Place, space and Anglo-Welsh forensic practice (1800-1914)', Society for the Social History of Medicine Conference, Canterbury (July 2016)
  • '"By lying in wait, feloniously and unlawfully did make an assault": Coventry’s Act and malicious injury in the long eighteenth century', 23rd British Legal History Conference, London (July 2017) 
  • 'Thomas Scattergood: Forensic investigation and professional networks in Victorian Yorkshire', British Crime Historians Symposium 6, Edge Hill (August 2018) - with Dr Laura Sellers

Conferences organised

  • Organiser of an international conference on the history of violence: ‘“Assaulting the Past”: Placing Violence in Historical Context’ at St Anne’s College, Oxford, 7-9 July 2005. 
  • Organiser of a half-day meeting on ‘The History of Forensic Chemistry’, The Royal Institution, London, 26 October 2005.
  • Organiser of a session on ‘Child Murder in North-Atlantic Europe, 1700-1900’ for the European Social Science History Conference, Amsterdam, 22-25 March 2006.
  • Organiser of a session on 'Women and Violence in the British Isles' for an international conference on Women and Crime in Britain and North America since 1500, Lyon, 12-13 September 2008.
  • Organiser of a workshop on 'Legal Medicine and Expertise in History', Oxford Brookes University, 4 December 2009. 
  • Co-organiser (with Dr Erica Charters, University of Oxford) of the 2014 Society for the Social History of Medicine Conference, held in Oxford 10-12 July 2014.

Keynote lecture

  • Student conference "Iustoria 2022 - Law, Health and Medicine", University of Belgrade (Faculty of Law), 25-27 March 2022. 

Further details

Blog

Editorships

  • Editorial Board Member, Law, Crime and History (e-journal)