Exploring the History of Forensic Science 
through the ages

Exploring the History of Forensic Science 
through the ages

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Exploring the History of Forensic Science 
through the ages

The importance of forensic science is primarily associated with crime and crime scene investigations. However, have you ever wondered what the history of forensic science is? How did it start? When were forensic techniques first used? Who were the early forensic scientists?

What comes to your mind when you hear the word “forensic investigator”?

Doesn’t your brain immediately conjure up the impassive, dapper character sporting aviators and donning latex gloves?

You instantly start picturizing high-tech computers, UV lights, and criminal labs furnished with high-end equipment. Well, that is the image that the modern day crimes shows have created of a forensic investigator.

Interested to know the importance of forensic science over the ages? We have the answers right here.

Presenting the brief history of forensic science.

Tracing the Roots of the Importance of Forensic Science in Ancient Times

The history of forensic science awaits exploration as forensic science as a discipline was not much spoken about until recently. On increasing the cognizance of the subtle importance of forensic science in the past, one cannot but amp up the reverence for this field of science.

The word forensic has its origin from the Latin word “forensis” which stands for a forum.

Forensic Science is basically used in tandem with any discipline that has associations with the legal system. In a nutshell, forensic science is the application of scientific methods and principles to questions of law.

Or, in layman’s terms, forensic science is a discipline used by a forensic investigator to solve crimes.

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The Building Blocks in the History of Forensic Science – The Origin

Forensic science as a part of the modern-day criminal justice system is still in its formative years. Interestingly, the importance of forensic science dates back to some of the ancient civilizations.

The earliest application of forensic science dates back to the ancient Greek and Roman societies.

Those civilizations made significant contributions to the field of medicine, especially pharmacology. Their research on the production, use, and symptoms of toxins made the study of their use in past murders possible.

History of Autopsy

Familiar with the word “mummification”?

Did you know that the Egyptian civilization back in 3000 BC performed the first instance of an ‘autopsy’? They performed the religious practice of the removal and examination of the internal organs of humans after their death. Thus, they are the earliest civilization to perform an autopsy.

Interestingly, the first officially recorded autopsy was performed way back in 44 BC!

This was when a Roman physician, Antistius, examined the slain body of Roman politician and general, Julius Ceaser. The autopsy revealed that though stabbed 23 times, his death actually resulted from one wound through this chest.

Importance of Forensic Science in the Early Roman Dynasty

Early in the 1st century AD, Roman orator and jurist Quintilian used basic forensics to acquit an innocent.

The Roman model forms the foundation of the modern day court and legal system. Thus, the application of scientific principles in the examination of evidence in ancient Rome is not surprising. However, with the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, the applications of forensic science in criminal justice stagnated over the next millennium.

The Origin of Pathology

Ever wondered what was the very first guide to pathology? The book Xi Yuan Lu (The Washing Away of Wrongs) published in the 13th century in China by Song Ci.

Xi Yuan Lu is the first written testimony of the use of medicine and entomology to solve crimes. This book is one of the earliest available literature to help determine the cause of death.

The book explained how to distinguish an accidental death from a murder by examining the weapon used to cause death. It threw light upon important topics such as:

  • How to preserve evidence during the examination process?
  • How to make an antiseptic?
  • How to extract a hidden injury from dead bodies and bones?
  • How to calculate the time of death based on the weather and insects? and
  • How to wash a dead body for examination?

The Early Methods of Forensic Examination used by a Forensic Investigator

One of Song Ci’s account in his book talks about the basic methods used to crack a murder case.

First, the investigator tested various blades on an animal carcass and compared the wound to the actual one. This helped him deduce that the weapon used to commit the murder was a sickle.

Next, he asked every resident of the crime area to bring their sickles to one location. Eventually, the murderer confessed when the smell of blood caused flies to gather on his sickle.

The book also provided methods and logic to estimate if a death resulted from suicide, accident or murder.

Earliest Application of the Lie Detector or Polygraph Test by a Forensic Investigator

The earliest precursor to the Polygraph test was the examination of the saliva, mouth, and tongue of a suspect to deduce innocence or guilt.

For example, in ancient India, the suspect’s mouth was filled with some dry rice and in China with rice powder. They were then asked to spit it out.

In some middle-eastern cultures, the accused would have to lick heated metal rods briefly.

The principle used for these methods was that a guilty person would produce less saliva. Thus, if rice got stuck in their mouths or if their tongues got severely burnt, they were pronounced guilty.

The Glorious 16th & 17th Centuries in the History of Forensic Science

In 16th century Europe, the gathering of information on the cause and manner of death was first initiated by medical practitioners. A French army surgeon, Ambroise Paré, methodically studied the effect that violent death has on internal organs.

Italian surgeons, Fortunato Fidelis and Paolo Zacchia laid the foundation of modern pathology. They achieved this through a study of the changes occurring in the structure of the body due to a disease.

With the dawn of the 17th century, the importance of forensic science received a boost resulting due to the other advancements in science.

Modern Forensic Science Techniques Start Taking Shape

The forthcoming centuries witnessed a resurrection of forensic science with an increase in the application of science in solving crimes.

Techniques such as matching evidence like clothing fibers and footprints to those found on a suspect starting gaining popularity. Gradually, criminal investigations started revolving more around evidence-based and rational approaches.

Soon, the validity of confessions under duress and belief in occult practices such as witchcraft started diminishing in the courts.

Eventually, development of the technique of fingerprint analysis took place in 1880.

Fingerprint Analysis – A major milestone in the History of Forensic Science

The technique of fingerprint analysis to link incidents to suspects was a major breakthrough in the forensic landscape in 1880.

Fingerprint analysis resulted from the groundbreaking theory established by Henry Faulds and William James Herschel from the uniqueness of fingerprints. This study received a huge support from experts all over the world and was later accepted as a crucial evidence in the legal system.

The ancient Chinese used fingerprint analysis for the identification of business documents.

It was Francis Galton and Edward Henry who actually implemented Herschel’s fingerprinting practices in criminal investigations. Sir Francis Galton started the first system for classifying fingerprints.

Sir Edward Henry, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police of London, used the direction, flow, pattern and other characteristics in fingerprints to develop his own system of fingerprint analysis.

Now, the Henry Classification System is the standard for criminal fingerprint analysis techniques worldwide.

Evolution of the Importance of Forensic Science Through the Ages

Two famous examples of the use of forensic science in the 18th and 19th century are worth a mention. These clearly showcase the use of logic and scientific procedures by forensic investigators during that period for criminal investigations.

First, the conviction of John Toms in Lancaster for the murder of Edward Culshaw with a pistol.

The crucial clue which was a turning point in this investigation was the perfect matching of a pistol wad. This was found from the dead body of Culshaw along with a torn newspaper recovered from Toms’s pocket.

The second was the trial and conviction of Warwick, a farm laborer, in 1816. Police retrieved and analyzed the footprints and cloth impressions that he left on the damp soil of the crime scene. A matching of the impressions in the earth near the pool where a young maidservant was drowned confirmed his role in her murder.

Forensic Ballistics – The Foundation

Scotland Yard’s Henry Goddard became the first in 1835 to connect a bullet to a murder weapon using physical analysis.

Gradually in the 1920s, bullet examination became more precise when American physician Calvin Goddard created the comparison microscope. This helped in drawing a crucial relationship between bullets and the shell casings from which they were fired.

Later, in the 1970s, scientists at the Aerospace Corporation, California, developed the method of detecting gunshot residue using scanning electron microscopes.

The Origin of Forensic Toxicology

Swedish chemist, Carl Wilhelm Scheele, first developed a chemical test to detect arsenic in corpses in 1773. His work was further elaborated by a German chemist, Valentin Ross, in 1806 to detect poison in stomach walls.

In 1836, Scottish chemist, James Marsh, did the first application of this forensic science technique. This test was actually used successfully in a murder trial at that time.

Almost a century later, scientist Karl Landsteiner received the Nobel Prize in 1930 for his work on blood groups. He was the first one to classify human blood into various groups. This later went on to give significant leads during criminal investigations from the examination of blood.

The mid-1990s saw the development of other tests to examine saliva, semen, sweat and other body fluids.

The Major Highlights in the History of Forensic Science

Here’s the history of forensic science timeline to summarize the eventful journey of forensic science till the 20th century.

The 1800s

  • Questioned document analysis was first recorded
  • Tests developed for the forensic analysis of the presence of blood
  • A bullet comparison used for the first time to convict a murderer
  • Toxicology (arsenic detection) used in a jury trial
  • Hemin crystals used for the development of the first crystal test for hemoglobin
  • A plausible test for blood was first developed
  • Photography used for the first time for the identification of criminals and documentation of evidence and crime scenes
  • Use of fingerprint analysis to solve a crime was first recorded
  • Development of the first microscope with a comparison bridge

The 1900s

  • Use of the comparison microscope for bullet comparison became popular in the 1920s
  • Development of the absorption-inhibition ABO blood typing technique
  • The invention of the first interference contrast microscope by Dutch physicist Frits Zernike in 1935
  • Development of the chemiluminescent reagent, luminol, for the presumptive test for blood
  • Voiceprint identification was first studied
  • The invention of the Breathalyzer for field sobriety tests
  • Use of heated headspace sampling technique for collecting arson evidence
  • Development of the scanning electron microscope with electron dispersive X-ray technology
  • The polymorphic nature of red cells first identified
  • Enactment of the Federal Rules of Evidence
  • Gas chromatograph and the mass spectrometer were being used for forensic analysis
  • The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique developed for clinical and forensic applications
  • DNA profiling gained increasing popularity
  • Enactment of the DNA Databank legislation in 1994

The Modern History of Forensic Science

In the early 20th century, there was a boom in the development of newer forensic techniques for examining the evidence. This lead to law enforcement agencies realizing the requirement of special forensic investigator teams for evidence gathering and analysis.

A professor at the University of Lyons – Edmond Locard, began the first police crime laboratory in France (1910). In fact, his revolutionary work in the field of forensic science earned him the name “The Sherlock Holmes of France”.

Locard’s Exchange Principle

Edmond Locard’s concept that “everything leaves a trace” formed the basis of what is now called Locard’s Exchange Principle.

Locard’s Exchange Principle states that everything and everyone that enters a crime scene leaves some piece of evidence behind. This is extensively used by a forensic investigator in crime scene investigations.

Conversely, he also established that everyone and everything takes some piece of the crime scene with them when they leave.

To this day, forensic science has witnessed a number of significant advancements. From high-tech tools to DNA profiling and cyber forensics, forensic investigations are a lot easier now than it ever was.

DNA profiling has, in fact, lead to the successful identification of numerous criminals across the globe.

The Quintessential Human Factor in Forensic Science

Forensic Science has a rich but undervalued history and a richer potential ahead. Advancements in forensic science are an ongoing process and each day introduces a new technique into the forensic world.

Despite all developments, any investigation still requires a human brain to decipher and rationalize the events of an incident scene. A forensic investigator, at present, has the benefit of numerous tools and medical and scientific advancements at their disposal.

In fact, a trained crime scene investigator bears the responsibility of correctly analyzing, retrieving and collecting evidence from a crime scene by leveraging every available scientific and technological advancement.

Nevertheless, one must not forget the human factor that comes into play without which an investigation is incomplete.

Application of the Human Acumen by a Forensic Investigator

While forensic science can explain the ‘how’ of a crime, a human mind is still needed to uncover the ‘why’. It requires the acumen of the crime scene investigator and law enforcement personnel to understand the motive before a trial.

A crime scene analysis is incomplete without the concord of scientific methods and the human factor. Yes, a scientific evidence speaks for itself. But, it requires a human comprehension and voice to present it in the court of law for seeking justice.

Incognito Forensic Foundation (IFF Lab) – A premier private Forensic Lab in India

Incognito Forensic Foundation (IFF Lab) is another valuable addition to the world of forensic science. Headquartered in Chennai and with an office in Bangalore, IFF Lab is all set to revolutionize the forensic domain. It houses a state-of-the-art forensic laboratory and forensic professionals handpicked from premier forensic institutes across the country.

IFF Lab is a valuable contribution towards criminal investigations, cyber and digital forensics in the nation. It endeavors to value the rich history of forensic science and create new standards for the importance of forensic science in the impending future.

Learn more about IFF Lab’s role in forensic science and criminal investigations.