The term coroner has been in use in England since about the year 900. It derives from the term coruner (root word corona, Latin for crown, 'officer of the crown', meaning worked for the King). The position of coroner has evolved over the centuries as a public official responsible for the investigation and certification of cause and manner of cases of sudden and unnatural death.
Much of American law derives from the English system, and the office of the coroner has remained in use in the United States (and other countries) to date. The use of the office of the coroner varies widely throughout the U.S. Some are elected positions, others are appointed. Many are open to lay persons, others require that the coroner be a physician, and a few require that the coroner be a forensic pathologist.
In the State of Washington, law directs that the investigation of sudden and unnatural deaths take place within the 39 county jurisdictions. The system varies from county to county. The counties that are smallest by population have the elected prosecuting attorney also serve as coroner. In most of the medium sized counties, the coroner is a separate elected office. In Washington there is no requirement for the coroner to be a physician. As of 1999, six Washington counties have physicians serving as medical examiners rather than coroners (Clark, King, Pierce, Snohomish, Spokane and Whatcom). Five of the counties (Clark, King, Pierce, Snohomish and Spokane) have forensic pathologists serving as the medical examiner. Coroner laws and laws pertaining to human remains apply to all 39 counties.
The concept of the medical examiner was developed in 1877 in the State of Massachusetts. The public was dissatisfied with layman coroners and the system changed to one of appointed physicians. One medical doctor was appointed to each district (similar to a county jurisdiction) to be the public official responsible for the investigation of sudden and unnatural death. Medical examinations were a part of the investigation and the term medical examiner has been in use since. The modern medical examiner system developed during the years 1915-1917 in New York City. A forensic pathologist was appointed to be the medical examiner with statutory authority to investigate death and provided with a dedicated facility, support staff and toxicology laboratory.
The medical examiner concept is used in many states. All are appointed, not elected positions, and all medical examiners are physicians, but not necessarily trained in forensic pathology.
Forensic pathology is a branch of medicine that applies the principles and knowledge of the medical and related sciences to problems that concern the general public and issues of the law. A forensic pathologist is a physician with specialized medical and forensic science training and knowledge. In practice, forensic pathologists concentrate closely on the understanding of types and causation of injuries and causes of sudden and unnatural death. The American Board of Pathology was established in 1936, and recognized forensic pathology as a formal sub-specialty in 1958. Forensic pathologists are commonly involved in death scene investigations, the performance of forensic autopsies (forensic autopsies have a different focus than that of hospital autopsies conducted in cases of natural death), review of medical records, interpretation of toxicology and other laboratory studies, certification of sudden and unnatural deaths and court testimony in criminal and civil law proceedings.