This week in science history: Unacknowledged, the first forensic fingerprinter dies

Henry Faulds was perhaps the first person to understand the uniqueness of fingerprints. Then Darwin’s cousin got wind of his work. Jeff Glorfeld reports.

Henry Faulds, arguably the inventor of forensic fingerprinting.
Henry Faulds, arguably the inventor of forensic fingerprinting.
Wikiemedia Commons

From Sherlock Holmes to Kay Scarpetta, fictional sleuths who use forensic science to catch criminals have thrilled audiences for more than a century. There have even been reports of a so-called “CSI effect”, in which a popular series of television programs has supposedly influenced people’s real-life perceptions of scientific crime detection.

One of the most enduring tenets of crime-solving is the belief in the infallibility of fingerprints. But research published in 2017 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science has called into question the validity of this most venerable tool.

Even though law enforcement agencies around the world have used fingerprints as evidence to catch and convict criminals for more than 100 years, there has been some controversy over who discovered their use as a form of identification.

Among the most persuasive claimants for this honour is Henry Faulds, a doctor and missionary, born on June 1, 1843, in North Ayrshire, Scotland. After studying medicine, in 1873 he travelled to Japan, where he founded a hospital in Tokyo, taught at a local university and founded the Tokyo Institute for the Blind.

In the late 1870s he became interested in archaeology and made note of fingerprints impressed into pieces of ancient Japanese pottery. He expanded his studies into living examples of fingerprints, experimenting on his own fingers. He even tried to obliterate or change his whorls and loops using acid, and concluded that a person’s fingerprints were permanent and unique.

The story became complicated after Faulds shared his findings in a letter to the renowned scientist Charles Darwin, who shared it with his cousin, Francis Galton.

As recounted in a 2014 Gizmodo article, Faulds published a paper on fingerprints in 1880 in the journal Nature, suggesting that they could be used to catch criminals, along with ideas on how this could be done. Shortly afterwards, Sir William Herschel, a British magistrate working in India, published a letter in the same journal, in which he explained how he had been using fingerprints as a method of signature for years and was indeed the true inventor of the practice.

Faulds returned to Britain in 1886 and offered his fingerprinting system to Scotland Yard, which turned him down.

Then in 1892 Galton published a paper, titled “Finger Prints”, asserting the uniqueness of fingerprints and suggesting a classification system for them. He also sided with Herschel, and thus the pair became known as the main innovators in fingerprint collection. [became known:

This triggered a series of claims and counter-claims between Faulds and Herschel that lasted until 1917, when Herschel conceded that Faulds had been the first to suggest a forensic use for fingerprints.

Faulds continued to work in London and later as a police surgeon in Staffordshire. He died March 24, 1930, reportedly still bitter at the lack of recognition he had received for his work.

Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
Latest Stories
MoreMore Articles