The investigation of death is a crucial function in any community which tries to safeguard its members from untimely death. Coroners in Melbourne have always attracted notoriety and public comment. The first coroner appointed to the City of Melbourne was William Byam Wilmot in 1840. Magistrates had heard inquiries into unusual deaths before Wilmot's appointment, but popular opinion was said to be better satisfied by the findings of coroner and jury. Despite this desire for a coroner, Wilmot was soon accused of laziness and incompetence by the Argus. Nevertheless, he continued to act as coroner, before holidaying in England in 1854-55, and then leaving the colony permanently in 1857.
Wilmot was replaced by Richard Youl, who was born in Van Diemen's Land but educated in England. Youl studied medicine in Paris, Edinburgh and London, and brought the new clinical medicine with him when he returned to Australia in 1850. He wrote the final verdict on thousands of Melburnians (in his own incomprehensible scrawl) until his own death in 1897. A prominent medical figure in colonial society, he was official visitor of the Lunatic Asylums, first chairman of the Police Medical Board, and frequently gave evidence at official inquiries. Youl was replaced by Samuel Curtis Candler, who had been coroner in the County of Bourke since 1857. A resident of the Melbourne Club and a man-about-town, Candler had a keen interest in the development of medical science. He remained coroner until his retirement in 1908. The long period during which Youl and Candler held inquests in Melbourne, many at the morgue, saw an increase in the participation of doctors at inquests.
Curtis Candler was replaced by Robert Hodgson Cole, who had qualified as a doctor, but also practised for 10 years as a barrister. Cole's combination of legal and medical skills made him 'an excellent coroner', according to the pathologist Crawford Mollison. The appointment of Cole, a magistrate, was a new direction in the appointment of coroners.
Although neither English law nor tradition required medical coroners, since 1840 Melbourne's coroners had all been medically qualified. After Cole's retirement in 1923, no doctor was appointed Melbourne coroner. Instead, the following magistrates all acted as Melbourne coroner: Daniel Berriman (1923-27), David Grant (1927-35), Arthur Tingate (1936-45), Herbert Wade (1947 and again in 1956-57), James Burke (1947-55), James Duggan (1956-58), Harry William Pascoe (1958-79), Kevin Mason (1979-82) and Anthony Ellis (1983-86).
The last Melbourne City Coroner was Hal Hallenstein (1986). Hallenstein was also the first State coroner, appointed in June 1986 under the Coroners Act 1985. An advocate of the coroner's role in preventing death, Hallenstein did not shy away from media interest in his office or controversy about his findings. Hallenstein resigned in 1994, following criticism from the chief commissioner of police that he had 'lost the plot' after his findings on a police shooting. The renewed interest in the Coroner's Court generated by Hallenstein's high-profile coronership prepared Victorians for 'State Coroner', a locally produced television drama about the coroner first shown in 1997.