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The making of forensic science

Forensic science with its high tech methods can seem like quite a modern area of crime fighting. But its roots actually stretch way back into history. Let’s have a look at some of the major milestones of forensic science down the centuries.


Et tu Brute

The first recorded postmortem of a murder victim was in ancient Rome! A postmortem (or autopsy) is an inspection of a body after death. It is used to figure out why a person died or what caused their death. Postmortems can be vital in murder investigations as they can reveal all types of evidence like what the murder weapon was, the cause of death, where and when the murder took place, and also information about the victim. The first recorded autopsy was performed in 44 BCE on the Roman dictator Julius Caesar by a doctor called Antistius. Due to the findings we know that Caesar was stabbed 23 times but only one of the stab wounds was fatal. The autopsy was detailed enough that in 2003 experts were able to reconstruct the injuries digitally. They were then able, using forensic disciplines, to reconstruct the crime itself. Since the ancient Roman period medicine, and thus autopsy methods, developed significantly.


Dactyloscopy is not a dinosaur

Many would be mistaken in thinking that the taking of fingerprints started with the Victorians, but it is actually a lot older. The use of fingerprinting for identification has been used for hundreds of years. The Babylonians used fingerprints to sign contracts in 200 BCE and the Chinese were using fingerprinting as a form of authentication back in 851 CE. They might even have been collecting fingerprints from crime scenes as early as 220s BCE. In Europe, it wasn’t until the 18th century that a German anatomist, Johann Christoph Andreas Mayer, discovered that fingerprints are unique to each individual. Dactyloscopy - the study of fingerprint identification - really kicked off in the 19th century when Sir William James Herschel started using fingerprints as proof of identity so people couldn’t back out of contracts. He also used them to prevent relatives from fraudulently withdrawing a person’s pension after their death.

In the 1880s Henry Faulds published a paper on using fingerprinting for identification by recording and collecting fingerprints using ink. He took his ideas to the Metropolitan Police but they were not interested at that time. The first police force to find a way to record fingerprinting on criminal records by police chief Juan Vucetich in Argentina in 1892. That same year, in Argentina, what is possibly the first conviction using fingerprinting happened by police inspector Alvarez, who was was trained in fingerprinting by Vucetich. Alvarez was able to find one bloody fingerprint which matched his suspect, who then confessed to the murder. It wasn’t until 1901 that Scotland Yard started using fingerprinting and the first conviction in the UK using fingerprinting was in 1902.


Bang bang ballistics

Forensic ballistics is a 19th-century science although firearms of some sort or another have been around since the 13th century in China. One of the first techniques used was comparing the markings on a bullet to the marking inside the barrel of a gun. This was only possible due to an advancement in firearms called rifling. Prior to rifling, firearms were smooth bore, which meant that the inside of the barrel was smooth and the fired bullet would spin randomly, lowering the accuracy. Rifling created a uniform groove that twists around the inside of the barrel. This means the bullet is forced to spin in a uniform way which increases accuracy. In a time before firearms were mass-produced each gun was created individually by hand, making the marking of the gunsmith unique. The gunsmith that created the firearms would also make the moulds for the bullets. The first time forensic ballistics was used was in 1835 when a Bow Street Runner was able to match a bullet found at a crime scene to a mould owned by a suspect.

Once firearms manufacture became mechanised and mass-produced these markings were no longer so easily visible. This meant a magnifying glass was needed to see the marking left on bullets, creating its own problems. To compare two bullets you would have to look at one, remember the markings, then look at the other for comparison. This left the process open to errors and possible false convictions. There was a need to be able to compare two bullets at the same time. This was made possible by the invention of the comparison microscope (essentially two microscopes joined together by one eyepiece).


Say Cheese

There are two main uses for forensic photography: one is to document and identify criminals, the other is to document crime scenes. The documentation of criminals is the older aspect of forensic photography. Taking photos of criminals started in the 1840s in Belgium although these photos were not necessarily taken for future identification purposes but for documentation. In the 1850s a jail in Bristol started to use photography on prisoners that were reoffenders and following the 1871 Prevention of Crime Act, more police forces started to use images to record criminals. Thousands of photos were taken, but its impact was low. The photos didn’t all conform to the same standards. There was also a problem organising and archiving the photos taken to make them useful.


This process was changed dramatically by Alphonse Bertillon. Bertillon introduced scientific methods to photographing criminals. He basically invented the modern 'mugshot'; a standardised portrait and profile photo taken with the same light angles, distances and with a plain background. The mugshot in this style has barely changed since then and is still used today. You can read more about Bertillon and his pioneering role in the history of forensic science in a previous blog at www.visitnesm.org.uk/post/alphonse-bertillon-a-foe-to-criminals

The second aspect of forensic photography is recording crime scenes. Crime scenes were not routinely photographed before Bertillon. He revolutionized the recording of crime scenes by using photographic techniques such as overhead pictures, utilising a large tripod to take a birds-eye view of scenes, wide-angle lenses and measurement grids to show the height and distance of important pieces of evidence. His work was continued by his colleague Rodolphe Reiss who advanced the process by taking closeup photos of footprints, fingerprints, wounds, victim’s clothing and blood spatters.


You can find out more about how forensic science developed during the 19th century and the important role it played in crime detection in our new exhibition, Daring Detectives and Dastardly Deeds. Read more about the exhibition at https://www.visitnesm.org.uk/daringdetectives and get your advance tickets now. The museum will reopen to visitors on Wednesday 19 May.


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