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Exhibit Depicts Theatrical Side of Forensic Science

Gumshoe detectives and crusading cops, move over and make room for the scientist.

Forensic science -- the application of science to legal questions -- is a big hit on television these days. Forensics experts weren't always so popular with the public, though. In Europe, they were the ones who arrived on the crime scene to confiscate the wrongdoer's property for the king or the "crown," thus the name coroner.

A new exhibit, Visible Proofs: Forensic Views of the Body, at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Md., tracks the history of forensics from medieval murders to 20th-century genocide. The exhibit tells the story of the transformation of a science.

The exhibit shows there's more to forensics than guns and gore. The poisoner's arsenal grew during the Industrial Revolution, when many new chemicals were invented. The rise of big cities and urban crime led the French to invent a system of recording body measurements of criminals so police could track them. That was soon eclipsed by a British discovery -- fingerprints.

New technologies continued to produce new kinds of evidence for prosecutors, and the apparent objectivity of technology -- true or not -- helped sway juries.

"There is always a theatrical element in forensics, and that's one of the themes of the show -- visible proofs. It's the idea that it's not enough to make a proof that's persuasive in an argument, you have to show it," says curator Michael Sappol.

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Christopher Joyce is a correspondent on the science desk at NPR. His stories can be heard on all of NPR's news programs, including NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.