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Tuesday, November 04, 2003
the Myth of Fingerprints
In Fingerprints: The Origins of Crime Detection and the Murder Case That Launched Forensic Science (London, Fourth Estate, 2003) Colin Beavan takes the reader into the world of late nineteenth century crime, science and society, to recount the discovery and history of fingerprinting as a method of criminal identification. Today we take the ridges, furrows, whorls and loops on our fingertips for granted, yet the first recorded reference to their existence in any literature only dates from the early nineteenth century. We also mistakenly think that fingerprint science is now "old hat", superseded by DNA testing and other whiz-bang technologies and scientific discoveries as shown in populist forensic science TV shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. The fact is that fingerprinting retains its pre-eminent place in the arsenal of police investigators, still crucial to most crime detection, solving far more crimes than the newer more high profile forensic science techniques.
Beavan's extensive research reveals the identity of the forgotten "father" of fingerprint science to be Henry Faulds, an obscure Scottish physician and a devout Christian medical missionary in Japan. And there in lies the heart of this fascinating book, for Faulds' chief nemesis was the famous and high born Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, the originator of eugenics and a committed atheist. Galton championed the work of his friend and associate William Herscel in the area of fingerprinting while consistently and persistently refusing to give Faulds his due. Galton is portrayed in this book as a man born to to privilege who thought little of taking credit for what others of lesser rank had accomplished. Which is exactly what he did in the case of fingerprint science, taking Fauld's ideas while denying him any credit and developing them as a tool to support his evolutionary, racial and eugenic theories. That project ended in the camps of the Nazi Holocaust but the use of fingerprints in identification and crime detection went from strength to strength.
Because of Galton most people, even many experts in the field, have never heard of Faulds, and accept as "gospel" the view that the names Herschel and Galton should be pre-eminent in the historical record of fingerprint science.
Indian forensic scientist Dr Anil Aggrawal notes in the Internet Journal of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology Volume 2, Number 2, July-December 2001:
I have been an examiner in Forensic Medicine at most Indian Universities, and whenever we ask a question on the history of fingerprinting, we expect the following answer, “William Herschel originated the system and Francis Galton systematized it”. So much is the ignorance about Henry Faulds, even in the teaching faculty, that if a smart student were to utter Henry Faulds’ name, he would probably get negative marking! For the first time, I came to know - through this book - that this was as a result of a conspiracy, a kind of secret pact hatched between Herschel and Galton. And how have they succeeded!
So how did this injustice come about?
Around 1877, a British magistrate in India, William James Herschel, dismayed that Indians so often disavowed their contracts, had them affix their fingerprints to the documents. This was more to intimidate rather than for conclusive identification; Herschel did not determine fingerprint characteristics that could tell one from another, and the prints that he took were often smeared, for details were not regarded as necessary. But a contemporary Scotland-born doctor, Henry Faulds, while in Japan as a missionary, noticed that there were finger impressions in ancient pottery, and began to study fingerprints as unique identifiers. It was he who discovered that fingerprints did not change as people aged, and that using sandpaper, razor, or acid to obliterate fingerprints made no difference, as when healed, the prints grew back exactly in the previous manner. Here was an easy way to identify people permanently. Rob Hardy
In 1880 Faulds wrote a letter published in the prestigious journal Nature suggesting that fingerprints would be an ideal identification system, and that registers of fingerprints should be kept for this purpose. This was the first ever mention of the use of fingerprints for identification in the scientific literature. Herschel wrote a letter in reply recounting his use of prints in India, but there was little interest in Faulds' ideas. Faulds also wrote to police chiefs around the world, but none were interested either; Bertillon's anthropometric system held sway.
Later in 1880 Faulds wrote to Charles Darwin to seek his help to generate some enthusiasm for fingerprint research, but the aged and ill Darwin begged off; he did however forward Faulds' letter to his cousin, Francis Galton, whose star was steadily rising. Galton told Darwin that he would help Faulds, but he never contacted him. He did however become intrigued by the notion of of fingerprinting, and developed a system of classification which he published in 1892 that made it significantly easier to use fingerprints as a means of reliable and rapid identification. A bitter war of words ensued between the protagonists as Faulds sought to have his contribution recognised; it echoed down the years until Faulds' death in 1930. And then he, having been effectively sidelined already, was virtually forgotten.
Galton did his best to take over fingerprinting. He was a snob who was convinced of the superiority of upper class breeding (such as his own; he will be forever identified with the eugenics movement, his ideas adopted by Hitler), and he originally investigated fingerprints as some sort of palmistry to show family characteristics such as strength and intelligence. Galton knew Herschel's family, he wanted to know nothing of Faulds, and he did whatever he could to make sure that any credit for fingerprinting went to himself primarily and Herschel secondarily. It worked; Faulds became not even a footnote in the fingerprint story, and died in 1930 still trying to get recognition for his life's work, long after its potential was being used by police departments all over the world. (Hardy)
Colin Beavan places the "guilt" for this state of affairs squarely on the shoulders of Francis Galton:
Galton's social elitism explained his outrage at Henry Faulds's eventual claims for the respect and credit Faulds was due. Each man was everything the other was not. Galton was rich; Faulds was poor. Galton did not receive his physician's licentiate; Faulds did. Galton was an atheist; Faulds was religious. Galton resided at the center of society; Faulds was an outsider. Most important, much of what Francis Galton got in life, he never had to work for, while much of what Faulds worked for, thanks in part to Galton, he never got.
As for his life's work, Galton's ideas are today usually rejected even by fellow materialists, atheists and evolutionists who wish to distance themselves from notions such as race purity and eugenics, ideas that Galton saw as an implicit deduction from Darwin's theories:
If Galton ever needed proof of his ideas of the genetic superiority of some people over others, it had come, in his mind, with the 1859 appearance of his cousin Darwin's theory of evolution. Here was proof that his genetic heritage, in spite of his sometimes dilatory existence, exalted him. The children of the intellectually and physically well-endowed were naturally superior, his logic went, and this therefore took precedence over his lack of accomplishment. Ironically, launching himself on a quest to prove this fact would finally make him an accomplished and hard-working scientist in his own right.
Along with his ideas on class, race and intelligence what fuelled Galton's science was his atheism:
Another deduction Galton made from Darwin's theory was that God did not exist. He wrote in a letter to Darwin that Origin had driven away "the constraint of my old superstition as if it had been a nightmare." Galton even tried to prove scientifically that prayer did not work. He compared the life spans of eminent clergymen and doctors and found, on average, that doctors lived about six months longer. Galton concluded that "the prayers of the clergy ... for recovery from sickness, appear to be futile."
There is a good news ending to this story, even if it comes too late for Henry Faulds whose role in the discovery of fingerprint science has been effectively hidden, even denied, by the science establishment and the Government in Britain. In the late 1980s two American forensic examiners researching the history of fingerprinting stumbled upon Faulds' overgrown and neglected grave in the English Midlands. From this simple event the rehabilitation of Faulds has snowballed; and his pioneering ontribution to fingerprinting and forensic science is gradually assuming its true place in the annals of the profession. Dr Beavan's book hopefully will do the same with the general reading public.