A history of fingerprints

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):

*The image used to illustrate this post was obtained here.


12 responses to “A history of fingerprints

  1. Hehehe. The burning question. Answer is, try as hard as one might – one cannot remove his fingerprints. At all. There was a case when one known gangster actually tried to remove all his prints from his hands by plastic surgery and replaced them with skin graft obtained from his chest. He thought he was very clever. He wasn’t.

    For one thing, he was identified by the second layer of the skin. And to add insult to injury, from what I can recall from my class, the lecturer told us that the poor guy’s ridges actually grew back. This is because the scar tissue will form over the graft tissue, meaning the tissue on the original site will just replace the graft. All that hard work and money spent for nothing.

    The friction ridges on our fingers play an important role in providing grip. Without these ridges, whatever you try to hold in your hands will slip. These ridges already exist way before a person is born, forming even as a fetus develops in the womb. I guess that could be one of the extraordinary reasons why the ridges are just so stubborn!

    The fingerprint tissue consists epidermis and dermis. You shave off the epidermis, there’s always the dermis underneath. Again, as I’ve pointed out above, the ridges are simply resilient. From the case I’ve brought up above, try remove the first layer, the ridges are still present in the second, deeper layer. Keep cutting, you might as well lose your fingers 🙂 And yes, even with chemicals, the ridges will still grow back. But a criminal would be stupid to attempt anything like that – because all he’ll stand to lose is the sense of touch. The ridges will keep returning, regardless.

    Unless if there is a permanent scarring, ridges are persistent.

    Hope that answers your question. Hope I didn’t provide any false infos 🙂

  2. Excellent article and brief history. Question, looking at fingerprint tissue, how deep does it go? If one were to shave or chemically alter the finger tip tissue would forensic research be able to look deeper into tissue samples to reveal prints?

  3. Now, what do you know about neuroendocrine/neurosensory merkel cells?

    Test in the morning, pop quizz.


  4. Oh dear. Now that I have to do some more read-ups, haha! Looks like I’m flunking this pop quiz, George! 🙂

  5. Pingback: A history of fingerprints | DNA Evidence Monitor·

  6. munira your name sounds so familiar to me. I loved your site it was very useful to me it help me out with my homework as far as me understanding the wording that was used. You broke it down so easy thanks again. Fatima

  7. Fatima,

    I’m so glad you found the site helpful. I hope to be as informative and as accurate as possible 🙂 Thank you for your visit and lovely comment.

  8. im studeying abuot fingerprints for scince and it dont give me all of the infomation that i need so if you have any other websites please repiy to this comment xxxxxxxxxxxxx

  9. Hello,my name is Ellie,we’re doing a project at school and i chose for my project to be on “tracking criminals by fingerprints”. Although,i can’t seem to find the information i am loooking for,so if you have absolutly any information that you think may help please reply,thankyou.

  10. Hi Ellie. I’m sorry I took too long to respond as I’ve been away. What kind of information are you looking for specifically? Are you looking for information on fingerprint patterns?

    There is a website called Ridges and Furrows which I think could be of help. Try see if it’s useful for your project.

    Good luck!

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