Experts bedeviled the legal system long before seventeenth-century Salem, when the town's good citizens relied on youthful accusers and witchcraft experts to identify the devil's servants in their midst. As in Salem, claims of expertise have often been questioned and objections raised about the bases of expert knowledge. Expertise, then and now, did not have to be based on science; but the importance of science and the testimony of scientific experts has since medieval times been woven into the fabric of the English jurisprudence that Americans inherited. In cases as long ago as 1299 we find examples of courts seeking help from “scientists.” In that year, physicians and surgeons in London were called on to advise the court on the medical value of the flesh of wolves.1 In 1619, two physicians offered the opinion that a wife could bear a legitimate child “forty weeks and nine days” after the death of her husband.2 Throughout this period, medical authority was called on by the coroners' courts to determine whether a death was due to suicide or to other causes, a crucial determination because suicide was a felony that entitled the Crown to take possession of a deceased's estate.3 Medical testimony is still the most common form of scientific expertise presented in court, but expert advice on legal matters has expanded exponentially, reflecting the enormous range of scientific knowledge that modern scholarship has produced.
Areas of Interest