Medical Definition of Postmortem examination

  • 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.

Postmortem examination: An autopsy, or an examination of a human body after death. Also called a necropsy. An autopsy can include a physical examination, examination of internal organs, and specialized laboratory studies. Autopsies may be used to help determine the cause and manner of death.

Postmortem examinations have been done for more than 2,000 years but during most of this time they were rarely done, and then only for legal purposes. The Roman physician Antistius performed one of the earliest autopsies 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.

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Reviewed on 12/11/2018

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