Jane Doe is a name used in legal, medical and other contexts for a female person whose true name is not known or cannot be revealed. It is a variation of John Doe, which refers to anonymous males; the two phrases have been used in English since at least the 1600s. Although their origin is unknown, the names John and Jane Doe probably were chosen for their generic sound. In the U.S. and Canada, they can refer to crime victims, unidentified corpses or anonymous figures in legal cases. The variation “Jane Roe” was given to the plaintiff in the 1973 United States Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade.
In medieval times, English law required a placeholder name for court cases that involved anonymous or hypothetical persons. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a standard reference in matters of language, the name John Doe was used for this purpose as early as 1659; the name Jane Doe dates to at least 1703. How these names were chosen is not known, although a possible hint is that the words “doe” and “roe” both refer to kinds of deer. At one point, English law specified that “John Doe” be used for anonymous plaintiffs and “Richard Roe” for defendants. Although Jane and John Doe are still widely used in North America, they are no longer in use in England.
In the U.S., the name Jane Doe is often assigned to unidentified female corpses for medical and legal records. It also is given to rape victims and other female crime victims who wish to remain anonymous for any reason. In the entertainment and news media, it is sometimes used to refer to a hypothetical average woman, much like the name John Q. Public. In legal cases, several anonymous names might be used to avoid confusion. Other such names that have been throughout the English-speaking world include Richard and Jane Roe, John Stiles, Richard Miles, Joe Bloggs and Mary Major.
In the 1980s, a Canadian woman became known as Jane Doe after she was the victim of a serial rapist. She learned that police had known that the rapist was stalking her neighborhood but had not issued warnings to avoid complicating the investigation. She successfully sued the Toronto police for negligence and damages. In 2003, she published a book about her ordeal, The Story of Jane Doe.
Perhaps the most famous person to bear a version of Jane Doe was the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized abortion in the United States. Jane Roe questioned the legality of Texas’ anti-abortion statutes and was defended by Dallas district attorney Henry Wade. The case was decided in Roe’s favor, a decision that remains controversial. Roe deliberately revealed her true name, Norma McCorvey, after the high-profile case was over.