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Outside the Lab Training and education

The Forgotten Pathologist – Song Ci

The Pathologist has hosted a robust debate on the value of the autopsy to pathology education.  As we reflect upon the value of the anatomic dissection, it feels like an appropriate time to give due reverence to a luminary who undertook the same challenge almost a millennia ago. Song Ci represents one of the most pivotal and yet little-known figures in the history of pathology. He served as a physician, judge, forensic medical scientist, anthropologist, and writer in the dying days of the dynasty that shared his name. 

Unfortunately, beyond the most famous cases in which he was involved and which he documented in arguably the first textbook of forensic pathology; little historical record remains of Song Ci. In fact, he was barely described in even the most comprehensive contemporary chronicles. Given the lack of historical and biographical information, I endeavored to see how his legacy has survived in modern literature. To this purpose I consulted two novels – one Spanish and one Chinese.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The first novel I considered was Antonio Garrido’s The Corpse Whisperer – an interesting task given that the version I read was the English translation of a Spanish novel about a Chinese historical figure! Of the two books, Garrido’s offering (perhaps unsurprisingly given the nature of the authorship) strayed farthest from what little biographic knowledge we have regarding the subject and was the least beholden to cultural accuracy. Connected to this is the author’s acknowledged addition of certain details, such as the protagonist’s congenital insensitivity to pain, which allows him to function both as an intellectual savant in the mold of his historical namesake and as an action hero in the mold of modern detectives. This same impulse also explains why Garrido made the decision to relegate his protagonist to a far lower social status than the one he actually held as well as make him much younger than any other media I considered. Though much of this impulse mainly serves to obscure the historical Song Ci, it did offer one major advantage: it underscored Song’s long-standing reputation for undauntedly challenging the corruption of his social superiors. For all the historical inaccuracies, the fact that a Spanish author was drawn to Song Ci as a topic is a powerful reflection of the impact of his life… 

The second novel I worked through was Wang Hongjia’s Final Witness. Emerging as it does from the Chinese context, it is not really surprising that this novel far more closely follows the historical record than The Corpse Whisperer. As the author notes, “Song Ci’s birth, his education, his growth to maturity and his dedicated official service, all of this is historically accurate.” This points to an interesting contrast with Garrido’s work; in Final Witness, Song Ci’s status as an elite practicing noblesse oblige defines his heroic character as opposed to upward social mobility. 

The element of fiction in this otherwise historically robust background emerges from the need to construct a man upon whom centuries of good reputation can plausibly be placed. To this end, Hongjia paints a picture of a devoted son, father, and husband, who is willing to go to any length within ethics and the law to protect a family that, with time, comes to encompass all those under his jurisdiction. Expanding this picture of moral rectitude is likely an embellishment of his martial skills (although not to the extent of Garrido’s). Why? So he can better serve as the parallel to Sherlock Holmes that the author seeks to construct.

Written nearly contemporaneously, The Corpse Whisperer and Final Witness offer two very different portrayals of Song Ci rooted deeply in the author’s cultures, if not the subjects. Garrido’s Song Ci is very much the model of a self-made man. Despite an initially low social status and the obstacles placed in his way by corrupt powers that be, he is able to climb his way into the judiciary and hold to account those who held him down. Though education plays a role so too do intrinsic features, such as congenital pain tolerance. Hongjia, in contrast, presents the best possible scenario of generational privilege – a genuinely meritorious and compassionate individual given enough authority and education to shield those under his care and face down those of his class who would oppress them. 

The true value of examining these novels, however, was in the commonalities. Isn’t it amazing that a man who died more than seven centuries ago motivated two authors on opposite sides of the world to immortalize both his morality and his use of forensic medicine to cut through the fog of contemporary corruption? Personally, I think that speaks to the value of all our work and the potential scope of our impact.

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About the Author
Adil Menon

Resident Doctor at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Chicago, IL, USA.

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