Today in History: Father of Fingerprinting Leaves His Mark

Today in History: Father of Fingerprinting Leaves His Mark

M.C. Millman

In the 1870s, a unique discovery led Scottish physician Dr. Henry Faulds to study fingerprinting, earning him the title of  "Father of Fingerprinting."

Faulds was born on June 1, 1843, to a prosperous family in Scotland. The physician's passion for medicine led him to Tokyo, Japan, where he established the Tsukiji Hospital in 1875.

In Japan, Faulds befriended an American archeologist, Edward S. Morse, who excavated cooking pots and other clay vessels. Upon examining the clay vessels, Faulds noticed patterns of parallel lines on their surface. Remembering the swirling ridges he saw on his own fingertips, Faulds put two and two together, realizing the ridges were from the fingers of ancient potters. 

This finding inspired Faulds to study fingerprints with a scientific approach. In one experiment, Faulds and his medical students shaved off the ridges on their fingers until they were smooth. Each time they did this, Faulds noted that the ridges grew back in the same precise pattern it was initially. 

Faulds confirmed that the fingertip ridges, or fingerprints, were not altered from various forms of damage. He also collected an extensive fingerprint database, ensured each was unique, and developed a classification system.

At this point, Faulds tried to promote his idea of using fingerprints as a method of identifying people. In 1880, Faulds contacted Charles Darwin to help him work on the idea. Darwin was unable to assist him but passed the idea on to his cousin Francis Galton, who showed little interest.

On October 28, 1880, Faulds published his first paper on the topic titled "On the Skin-Furrows of the Hand." In this paper, he suggested that a database should be kept of "the for-ever-unchangeable finger-furrows of important criminals." Encyclopedia reports that Fauld's letter was the first in scientific literature to suggest a fingerprinting system similar to the one we use today.

However, Faulds was robbed of the credit he fully deserved by Sir William Herschel. The following month after Faulds' paper was published, Herschel published a letter claiming he had collected fingerprints to identify criminals in jail since 1857. Encyclopedia clarifies that Herschel only used fingerprints as a signature to make the contract more binding based on superstitious beliefs. This differed from what Faulds was studying regarding the forensic evidence that fingerprints can supply. 

The scientific world did not pay much attention to Faulds' findings or the published letters between Faulds and Herschel.

Ironically, Francis Galton, who Faulds had requested help from initially,  published a book on using fingerprints in 1892 with no mention of Faulds' contribution. The NYS Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) writes that Galton proved scientifically that fingerprints do not change over an individual's lifetime and that no two fingerprints are identical. Galton calculated that the odds of two individual fingerprints being the same were 1 in 64 billion.

Galton designed a form to record fingerprints based on pattern types, which was "remarkably similar to the one Dr. Faulds had devised." The DCJS wrote, "If Faulds is to be believed, the form Galton designed to record impressions on was a blatant copy of Faulds' form forwarded to Galton from Darwin in 1880."

A fingerprinting bureau was set up by Edward Henry, a former colleague of Galton, in 1901. Faulds tried offering his fingerprinting system to police chiefs worldwide as well, but none were interested. Lacking the recognition he deserved, Fauds died in 1930.

Photo Credit: Flickr

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