Forensic Science History

The “Eureka” legend of Archimedes (287-212 BC) can be considered an early account of the use of forensic science. In this case, by examining the principles of water displacement, Archimedes was able to prove that a certain crown was not made of gold, as it was being fraudulently claimed, by its density and buoyancy. The earliest account of using fingerprints to establish identity was during the 7th century AD. According to Soleiman, an Arabic merchant, a debtor’s fingerprints were affixed to a bill, which would then be given to the lender. This bill was henceforth, legally recognized as a proof of the validity of the debt.

The first written account of using medicine and entomology to solve criminal cases is attributed to the book Xi Yuan Ji Lu, translated as “Collected Cases of Injustice Rectified”, written in 1248 China by Song Ci (1186-1249). In one of the accounts, the case of a person murdered with a sickle was solved by a death investigator who instructed everyone to bring their sickles to one location. Flies, attracted by the smell of blood, eventually gathered only on a certain sickle. In the light of this, the murderer eventually confessed. The book also offered advice on how to distinguish between a drowning (water in the lungs) and strangulation (broken neck cartilage).

In sixteenth century Europe, medical practitioners in the army and university settings began to gather information on the cause and manner of death. Ambrose Paré, a French army surgeon, systematically studied the effects of violent death on internal organs. Two Italian surgeons, Fortunato Fidelis and Paolo Zacchia, laid the foundation of modern pathology by studying the changes that occurred in the structure of the body as a result of diseases. In the late 1700s, various writings on these topics began to appear. These included – “A Treatise on Forensic Medicine and Public Health” by the French physician Fodéré, and “The Complete System of Police Medicine” by the German medical expert Johann Peter Franck.

In 1775, a Swedish chemist by the name of Carl Wilhelm Scheele devised a way of detecting arsenous oxide, simple arsenic, in corpses, but only in large quantities. This investigation was expanded, in 1806, by a German chemist Valentin Ross, who learnt to detect the poison in the walls of a victim’s stomach, and by English chemist James Marsh, who used chemical processes to confirm arsenic as the cause of death in an 1836 murder trial.

Two early examples of English forensic science in individual legal proceedings demonstrated the increased use of logic and procedure in criminal investigations. In 1784, in Lancaster, England, a person called John Toms, was tried and convicted for murdering Edward Culshaw with a pistol. When the dead body of Culshaw was examined, a pistol wad, basically crushed paper used to secure powder and balls in the muzzle, which was found in his head wound, matched perfectly with a torn newspaper found in Toms’ pocket. In 1816, in Warwick, England, a farm laborer was tried and convicted for the murder of a young maidservant. She had been found drowned in a shallow pool and bore the marks of violent assault on her body. The police, upon investigating, found footprints and an impression from corduroy cloth with a sewn patch in the damp earth near the pool. They also found scattered grains of wheat and chaff from the scene of crime. The breeches of a farm laborer, who had been threshing wheat nearby, were examined and later corresponded exactly to the impression in the earth near the pool.

Leave a Reply