History Of Fingerprinting Part 1
The earliest dated prints of the ridged skin on human hands and feet were made about 4,000 years ago during the pyramid building era in Egypt. In addition, one small portion of palm print, not known to be human, has been found impressed in hardened mud at a 10,000-year old site in Egypt.
It was common practice for the Chinese to use inked fingerprints on official documents, land sales, contracts, loans and acknowledgments of debts. The oldest existing documents so endorsed date from the 3rd century BC, and it was still an effective practice until recent times. Even though it is recorded that the Chinese used their fingerprints to establish identity in courts in litigation over disputed business dealings, researchers fail to agree as to whether the Chinese were fully aware of the uniqueness of a fingerprint or whether the physical contact with documents had some spiritual significance.
Dr Nehemiah Grew
The first documented interest in the skin’s ridges in the western world, a paper written in 1684 by an Englishman, Dr. Nehemiah Grew, was mainly of an anatomical nature. A small number of other academics from various European countries also made anatomical studies of the skin. Professor Marcello Malpighi, a plant morphologist at the University of Bologna, performed research similar to Grew’s and published similar findings in his 1686 publication De Extemo Tactus Organo. This anatomical treatise, though less detailed about the surface of the hand than that of Dr Crew, delves further beneath the surface. Malpighi’s anatomical work was so outstanding that one of the layers of the skin was named :stratum Malpighi” after him. It was not until 1798, however, that J C Mayer of Germany theorised that the arrangements of friction ridges were unique.
In 1823, Professor Johannes Evangelist Purkinje published the most detailed description of fingerprints to have appeared anywhere up to that time. Professor Purkinje’s thesis entitled A Commentary on the Physiological Examination of the Organs of Vision and the Cutaneous System describes, with illustrations, nine fingerprint patterns classified in Latin. From his illustrations, it can be seen that the Latin classifications refer to what Henry would later name arches, tented arches, loops, wholes and twinned loops. Purkinje’s research was purely anatomical, and he made no mention of individuals being identified by the patterns that he described. However, he recommended further research, and others soon took up his challenge.
Sir William Herchel
However, it was not until 1858 that the first practical application of the science was made, when an English administrator in India, Sir William Herschel, commenced placing the inked palm impressions and, later, thumb impressions of some members of the local population on contracts. These prints were used as a form of signature on the documents because of the high level of illiteracy in India and frequent attempts at forgery. Herschel also began fingerprinting all prisoners in jail.
The greatest advances in fingerprint science in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were probably made by Dr Henry Faulds, a Scottish missionary doctor of the United Presbyterian Church. Faulds first became interested in fingerprints after 1874 while working at the hospital he established in Tsukiji, Tokyo, Japan. After careful experiment and observation, he became convinced that fingerprint patterns did not change, that the fingerprint patterns on the fingers where highly variable and that superficial injury did not alter them, they returned to their former design as the injury healed.
In a letter written to Nature in October 1880, Faulds relates how he took many sets of fingerprints and palmprints and studied them, as Grew had done, with a botanical lens. He further described the pattern formations on the fingers, referred to “loops” and “whorls” and stating how good sets of fingerprints may be obtained by the use of “a common slate or smooth board of any kind, or a sheet of tin, spread over very thinly with printer’s ink. This technique, still in use today, appears to be a botanical technique called nature-printing. Fauld’s most important conclusion was that fingerprints do not change and that fingermarks (that is, latent prints) left on objects by bloody or greasy fingers “may lead to the scientific identification of criminals”.