A fingerprint is probably one of the most vital clues an investigator can hope to find in a crime scene. Anyone who has read a detective novel or has watched an episode of the popular television show CSI can attest to that. Since every set of fingerprints is individually unique, it is a reliable proof of identification. It is the case that the introduction of fingerprint identification (individualization) has been pivotal in the field of forensic science. The availability of programs that can store fingerprint data, together with technologies that allow for friction ridge recognition and reconstruction; has led to law enforcement agencies being able to more accurately and efficiently identify possible suspects in a crime.

Although fingerprint identification is a basic practice among forensic scientists and law enforcers, not everyone is aware of the historical development of the said method. This essay aims to examine the contribution of Sir Francis Galton in developing the use of fingerprints as a form of identification in forensics.

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The study of fingerprints began in the early 1600s, however; it was not until the late 1800s that the practical uses of fingerprints became evident. In 1870, British surgeon Dr. Henry Faulds recognized the importance of fingerprints while working with samples of prehistoric pottery. Faulds theorized that these marks could be used to indentify one person from another. After a year of studying fingerprints on pottery, Faulds forwarded his samples to the famous naturalist Charles Darwin to seek assistance in his design for recording inked impressions; however Darwin declined and instead recommended that Faulds seek the services of Sir Francis Galton.

It may be noted that Galton, aside from his works in fingerprints as a crime-detection method; he also made significant contributions in different areas of the natural sciences. He is recognized as the father of eugenics and one of the best innovators of the Victorian era. Despite his vast number of studies, we shall only be mentioning here, the ones that aided Galton in developing his work on Fingerprint analysis as a tool of individuation/identification.

The work of Faulds stirred up the interest of Galton who was already working on various methods in acquiring the different measurements of Human being. The knowledge he gained from analyzing the similarities and differences in twins ultimately helped him in the study of finger marks. His study of “minutiae in prints” refers to the individual markings of ridges on the finger, which are unique to even identical twins and can positively identify one individual from another.  He was able to illustrate that the general pattern of fingerprints on twins were often similar.

In furthering his study on the fingerprints of identical twins, Galton was able to discover that the arrangements of these ridges were not replicated in any two fingers, not even in twins. He noticed that the points of a fingerprint are not continuous across the fingertips in unbroken lines. According to Galton, ridges or points of fingerprints often stopped suddenly, came apart or connected with other points. Later he realized that comparing the ridge detail or “fingerprint minutiae” (points of comparison or identification) was necessary when identifying and comparing one fingerprint with another. For this, he confirmed Sir William Herschel’s observations of fingerprint permanence. As a result of his findings, Galton confirmed that a person’s fingerprints would identify him throughout the course of his life. In his comprehensive book Fingerprints published in 1892, Gaston brought his findings and developed the first method that will classify and identify a particular fingerprint. He classified prints based on their patterns of arches, loops, and whorls. This method of classification was soon after adapted by United Kingdom Home Secretary, Edward Richard Henry as a replacement for Bertillon system (identification by means of body measurements), and became the standard process/scheme of identifying people especially criminals. E.R. Henry used Galton’s finger printing method in the police force and bureaucratic setting.

Galton published two major works about fingerprints in order to be accepted in the Parliamentary Committee of 1894. The cover of the first book, Fingerprints contained a complete set of his own finger marks. He also published an important booklet, to Decipher Blurred Fingerprints in order to interpret marks that are unclear to the translator. Galton’s contribution to the method of fingerprinting was not limited to finding a practical use for the said method; rather he was able to provide further studies that grounded fingerprinting as an actual science, a strand of forensics itself.

Sir Francis Galton’s influence in the study of fingerprints is moreover attested by his additional publication of academic papers, articles, letters and interviews on the said subject. His extensive promotion of the use of prints in identification had helped in convincing the public as well as judicial institutions regarding the reliability of fingerprinting. Consequentially, his work was able to gain recognition and credibility in criminal courts through fingerprint testimonies, manual databases were created to store fingerprints records, et al.

This does not go to say that Galton’s study on fingerprints was easily received and accepted by his fellow scientists. Despite the evidence and scientific basis to support his study, critics were initially skeptical about the validity of his works. One of the articles that showed doubt for Galton’s study was presented in the Science of Fingerprints, by Patt Wertheim. The latter explained that Galton’s model is not at all accurate and reliable to use as an identification of human beings. Wertheim believed that Galton’s model had overlooked other factors that may identify the uniqueness of an individual like the direction of ridge flow and shapes of the ridges of fingers. It is undoubted that fingerprints lasts for a lifetime but Wertheim pointed out that when speaking about its uniqueness, Galton had somewhat intensified his investigation. For Wertheim, all human beings are unique therefore the uniqueness of fingerprints is merely a product of individual differences, rather than the cause of it. All the same, Galton’s study provided “the systematic proof of its scientific basis”, and so Wertheim statement is not outstandingly recognized by the public.

It is safe to say that Sir Francis Galton has greatly contributed to the innovation and advancement of fingerprinting. Despite the technology present in today’s forensics, we could still see it boiling down to the methods and principles Galton presented in the 1900’s. It is in this manner that Galton, can be said to have truly left his marks on us.