Medical Question: 1950’s Coroner

April asks: For a grad assignment, I have to come up with murder mystery plot line.  I have the general plot line down, but I’m wondering how efficient an autopsy in the 1950s would be?
I need the victim to be poisoned, most likely by a relatively common plant–probably a daffodil, yew, or Wild Cherries (those are my top three choices at the moment).  However, I have no idea how much or what kind of poisons would have been detectable by a small-town, 1950’s coroner.
Jordyn says:  First thing, is a medical examiner and coroner are very different. A medical examiner is a trained physician (the one who does the autopsy) and the coroner is an elected official to decide how an investigation should proceed. For instance, if the coroner feels the cause of death does not involve a crime, there may not even be an autopsy.


Yew Plant

The second thing you need to determine is when tests for toxicology/poisons came about: “Screening tests, such as radio immunoassay, enzyme immunoassay and thin-layer chromatography are often very sensitive, but not very specific. Because they are very sensitive, they will very likely detect the chemical/poison if it is, indeed, present in the sample. Unfortunately, because they lack specificity, they are given to false-positives – mistaking a substance with a similar chemical make-up for the suspected poison. Unless the results of these screening tests are confirmed with a reliable testing methodology, such as gas-chromatography/mass-spectrometry, the results of these screening tests do not satisfy the evidentiary standards for admissibility.”

When I did a little searching, some of these tests were not developed until the 1950’s and 1960’s. So, for them to be widely used would take some years. If you want to be very specific in your ms, you need to research when each of these tests were developed for forensic use. For example, google “development of forensic radio immnoassay”. That will give you a timeline for when they may have been able to detect your chosen poisons on autopsy. I did link you to some forensic timelines below— there are a few of these tests mentioned.
I think the easiest route for you would be this: This small town has a coroner who doesn’t suspect anything criminal is going on. This is still very common today because a coroner may have absolutely little or no medical training and probably no forensic training. Then, maybe based on the victim’s symptoms before death, the very smart local doctor begins to think someone is poisoning these people. This sets up conflict which is always a must. I would research the symptoms people have when they ingest the items you have listed. Then, maybe this local doctor can push the coroner into having a fancy, big-town ME do an autopsy.
3. http://jimfisher.edinboro.edu/forensics/fire/tox.html: forensic toxicology (poisonings)
Hope this helps and gives you some direction.

  

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