The study of fingerprints is one of the most salient aspects of criminal investigations and forensic detections. This is because fingerprint identification is far too unique, its success rate outperforms even DNA identifications. Many people would associate fingerprints searches with the famous fictional detective (and yes, forensic scientist) Sherlock Holmes skulking around in his deerstalker’s hat, whipping out a large magnifying glass on the hunt for fingerprints that would provide him the vital clue to solve the case (The Norwood Builder was Sherlock Holmes’ case that involved fingerprints for the first time). Most avid modern TV viewers today would often recall many episodes of CSI, involving the characters discussing about their fingerprint findings at crime scenes and searching for a possible match on the AFIS system in their big shiny lab.
But what many people don’t realize is that the importance of the fingerprints dated way back to the ancient times. There were even subtle references alluding to fingerprints in the Quran and the Bible. The ancient Chinese were among the earliest people to use fingerprints to establish identities in official records. Marcello Malphigi, an anatomy professor in 1886 Bologna, made notes and described the distinctive patterns that he had noticed on the fingers, formed by ridges. Later, a physiology professor, Johannes Purkinje, would write a thesis in 1823 about the nine principle types of fingerprint patterns he had studied, vaguely identifying a classification method. This particular research went by unnoticed by his peers.
It wasn’t until 1877 in India when a British administrative officer, Sir William Herschel, would inadvertently discover the practical application of fingerprints. He was looking for a way to prevent impersonations and forgeries, and discovered that the fingerprints greatly helped in the identification of a person. This was done by rubbing the palm of the hand with ink and stamping the print onto paper. These prints then were used as means of identifications to halt forgeries. After some careful experimentations and observations, Sir Herschel realized that no two prints are the same. Each person’s prints are distinguishable with high persistence and cannot be altered at all, not even by injuries or aging. His discovery became a major stepping stone for fingerprint applications in crime science.
Soon more scientific works began to be published on the fingerprint studies. Among the pioneers who would greatly contribute to the world of forensic science was Francis Galton, who was responsible for introducing the Galton’s Details – noted for its importance in calculating the distinctiveness of fingerprint details, and also for sketching out the basics for fingerprint classification system in 1892. This work would soon be followed up and evolved by Juan Vucetich, which soon lead to the establishment of the world’s first fingerprint bureau in Argentina. Not long after this bureau was set up, the very first criminal conviction through the means of fingerprint evidence was achieved in a murder trial. This bureau is still operating today in South America.
Sir Edward Henry published a critical written work “Classifications and Uses of Fingerprints” in 1900. His research further proved its importance when Sir Henry helped solved a murder crime in India, by examining the blood-stained fingerprints found at the scene of the crime based on the classification system he had devised in his research work. Sir Henry’s system was the very basis for the establishment of Scotland Yard’s own fingerprint bureau. Henry’s classification system was soon utilized in a criminal prosecution in 1902. Based on the evidence, the defendant was found guilty for burglary.
Henry’s classification rose to prominence again in 1905 when it was used for the first time in a major murder trial in England. The evidence was, of course, damning. Since then, Henry’s classification was widely used by the law enforcement agencies nationwide.
The application of fingerprint science continues to evolve throughout the years. The study of fingerprints is known as dactyloscopy. Many more inventions were made to enhance the forensic aspect of fingerprints. Aluminium powder was introduced as means to process fingerprints at a crime scene. With the evolution of technology, today the Federal Bureau of Investigations and many other law agencies around the world have been relying on AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification System) for a speedy fingerprint search database, replacing the old card search system, which was painstakingly slow and would take days.
Fingerprints will always remain as the fundamental of forensic science and crime-solving (which is why the fingerprint image above is prominently displayed as an emblem for this site). Not even the ever-growing evolution of DNA testing and identification could agitate the fingerprint’s prominence. And in its own extraordinary manner, fingerprints’ importance in crime science will never fade, very much like how an individual would attempt to remove his prints, only to have them persistently growing back again. Their presence is tenacious and eternally unique. As mentioned previously, a pair of twins may share the same genetic code, but not fingerprint patterns.
Useful related links (where some of the information above were obtained from for references):
- History of fingerprints (with images)
- The history of fingerprinting
- History on fingerprints
- Early fingerprint pioneers
*The image used to illustrate this post was obtained here.