A brief history of forensic radiology

The ability to produce images using x-radiation was an incidental discovery by Wilhelm Rőntgen in 1895. He described his findings and used the term 'x-rays' as at the time he did not understand what the 'rays' were and 'x' is the symbol for the unknown. His findings have been described as having a larger impact on medicine than any other in history.

It was only a matter of weeks later that the forensic use of x-rays was tested, they helped convict an American attempted murderer and it was only weeks later that the technique was first used in the UK. The main problems then were the amount of time it took to produce the images – up to 70 minutes – and the large associated radiation dose.

Forensic radiology today

Things have greatly improved since then and the scope of forensic radiology has increased. Forensic radiology is widely used in identification, age estimation and establishing a cause of death. Whether it is a single case or a mass fatality, plain film, dental and fluoroscopy have all been used to assist in this process.

The comparison of ante and post mortem radiographs is one of the most accurate means of identification. Imaging can also locate foreign objects which may aid in the identification of an individual or be a potential threat to the pathology team.   Other uses of forensic radiology include Customs and Excise baggage and vehicle scanning, drug smuggling and art fraud.

Computed tomography and MRI

In recent years, MDCT (multi-detector computed tomography) has become more popular in forensic work. There are several contributing factors to this. Forensic work follows medical practice and MDCT has become the 'gold standard' in imaging. In addition, to enable the comparison of ante and post mortem images for identification, forensic practice must follow the medical trends. The quality of the scans has improved, the time it takes to produce the images has decreased and the cost of scanners has reduced.

It is foreseen by some people that CT will replace other modalities in forensic radiology and potentially some autopsies, mainly those on trauma patients. Much research is still needed in this area and groups from around the world are working towards proving the validity of CT in forensic work.

Similarly, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) has been used in forensic cases but has a limited role to play. The strong magnetic currents required limits the potential for use and most cases would need a MDCT prior to an MRI scan. Obviously the associated costs involved constrain the use of MRI but this is a further avenue for research


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East Midlands Forensic Pathology Unit
Level 3, Robert Kilpatrick Clinical Sciences Building
Leicester Royal Infirmary
Leicester, LE2 7LX
United Kingdom

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