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Definition of Necropsy

  • Medical Author:
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Necropsy: A postmortem examination or autopsy.

Necropsies have been done for more than 2,000 years, but during most of this time they were rarely done, most often for legal purposes. The Roman physician Antistius performed one of the earliest necropsies on record. In 44 B.C., he examined Julius Caesar and documented 23 wounds, including a final fatal stab to the chest. In 1410, the Catholic Church itself ordered an autopsy on Pope Alexander V, to determine whether his successor had poisoned him. No evidence of this was found.

By the turn of the 20th century, prominent physicians such as Rudolf Virchow in Berlin, Karl Rokitansky in Vienna, and William Osler in Baltimore won popular support for the practice. They defended it as a tool of discovery, to identify the cause of tuberculosis, reveal how to treat appendicitis, and establish the existence of Alzheimer's disease. They showed that necropsies prevented errors and provided a means to confirm diagnoses. In the early 2oth century, the causes of most deaths were a mystery and that necropsies were a tool to provide families with a comprehensible explanation for a loved one's death. By the end of the Second World War, the necropsy was firmly established as a routine part of death in North America and Europe.

Reviewed on 12/12/2018

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