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One can trace the roots of medicolegal investigation of homicide and serious crime to ancient Rome and China’s Yuan Dynasty. In 44 BC, the Roman physician Antistius, performed the first recorded autopsy, on one very dead Julius Caesar, and determined that despite his 23 stab wounds, only the single pectus penetrating parry proved permanent.

forensics sherlock image from New Medical Terms

Early forensic investigation

A millennium on, progress in forensics continued in China. The Hsi Duan Yu (The Washing Away of Wrongs) attributed to Song Ci (1235 AD), a text of pathology, described how to differentiate strangulation from drowning, how to use insects to solve crime, how to identify the blade used to stab a victim and the utility of fingerprints. 

The unique nature of fingerprints has been recognized at least since the Babylonians under King Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC), when law officials took prints of those arrested. Finger- and handprints were used to authenticate documents by the Chinese in the Qin dynasty (circa 250 BC), by the Japanese (700 AD) and by the Persians in the Golden Age of Islam (circa 1300). However, many believe that forensic science’s watershed event was the work of Henry Faulds (1843-1930), a Scottish surgeon in Tokyo, who was impressed by Japanese potters whose work was “signed” with fingerprint. Faulds proposed recording fingerprints with ink and devised a method of classification, which he published in a letter in Nature (28 October 1880) titled On Skin furrows of the Hand. 

forensic ingerprint image from New Medical Terms

fingerprint placing perpetrator at crime scene

Faulds wrote to Charles Darwin (1809-1882) regarding possible uses of prints in ethnologic classification and in forensic identification of criminals. Darwin was by then too ill to shoulder another project and forwarded it to his cousin, Francis Galton* (1822-1911), who published a method for fingerprint analysis and identification and felt it would be useful in forensic science based on his assertion that the possibility of two people having identical fingerprints was 1 in 64 billion. Progress in fingerprint analysis has continued to the point where most countries have fingerprint databases derived from previously convicted criminals, which often helps solve “cold” crimes. 

*According to some historians, Galton didn’t properly attribute Faulds for his contribution to the nascent science of forensic fingerprinting.

As central as are fingerprints to forensics, the field encompasses far more. Historically notable figures include:

• Mathieu Orfila (1787-1853), father of toxicology, whose Traité des Poisons delineated tests to identify poisons–in particular, arsenic, ghoulishly known as inheritance powder, and used them to help convict murderers. 

• John Larson, who improved on the polygraph (lie detector). Lie detectors are remarkably unreliable; they often fail to identify those who are later proved guilty of a crime based on DNA evidence and may conclude that someone later proved innocent is at least a suspect.

The polygraph’s importance lies in recognizing the difficulty in removing unreliable processes and devices from the analytical war chest. 

forensics DNA image from New Medical Terms

Forensic DNA analysis of suspects

The US Congress Office of Technology Assessment published a review of the technology in 1983 and found only limited scientific evidence for establishing the validity of polygraph testing. In 2003, the National Academy of Sciences found that most of polygraph research was unreliable, unscientific and biased.

Polygraph use is regarded as an American phenomenon; it is allowed in a few States, but completely rejected as unscientific in Europe and violates the right to remain silent. 

Alec Jeffreys (1950- ), father of forensic genetics who, in 1984, developed techniques for DNA profiling and fingerprinting which are now integral to forensic science for solving crimes, freeing the wrongfully convicted and resolving paternity and immigration disputes