Fingerprints 101: Two Doctors, Three Lords, and Twin Criminals

Fingerprints as forensic science seem routine to the modern crime story fan, because they know humans are born with loops, arches and whorls on their finger pads. But in a true-life manifestation of existential philosophy, these obvious physical markings didn’t exist as forensic evidence until their usefulness was discovered. 

The initial classification of fingerprints occurred in 1832. Dr. Johannes Purkinje, an Austrian physician and physiologist, published a thesis on “principal configuration groups of fingerprints.” It was one of his lesser papers. Others documented the conduction system of the heart (Purkinje Fibers), the large branching neurons of the brain (Purkinje Cells), blood plasma (the fluid of our blood–plasma with a P like Purkinje), and cellular protoplasm (significant because it was not called Purkinje-plasm). I’m surprised the patterns weren’t called Purkinje Prints. By 1833, all this hard work yielded another discovery, the sweat gland. But it would be years before anyone discovered deodorant.  

As a British officer in India, Sir William James Herschel instituted the use of fingerprints on contracts to identify the signer.  He was credited as the first person in the modern era to use fingerprints for identification. In 1858, he used whole palm prints.

The next physician who advanced the use of fingerprints as evidence was Dr. Henry Faulds. He worked in Tokyo during the 1880s, and suggested that prints could be used to identify criminals. He also demonstrated that dusting latent (invisible) prints with powder exposed their patterns. His work helped to free an innocent man. 

In 1892, Sir Francis Galton, a half-cousin of Charles Darwin wrote a book on fingerprinting. He proved the loop, arch and whorl patterns were unique for each individual. He based his system of patterns on a classification similar in style to Alphonse Bertillon. Unfortunately, Galton is remembered most for the science of eugenics and his desires to breed out defects in the human race, a precursor to the master race theory. Thereby, Galton leaves his ugly prints on the twentieth century

Fingerprints effectively identify people because “the friction ridges” and the grooves of each individual are unique. Fingerprints are easy to obtain and can be consistently reproduced. They do not change over time or with growth. They are difficult, if not impossible, to eradicate or change. For the criminal they represent the mark of Cain.

Most major injuries to the finger pads result in short term disturbance to the pattern, but with healing, the pattern reconstructs. Dillinger tried to burn off his fingerprints with acid but failed. Shaving or burning off the pads distorts the prints, and deep tissue injuries leave scars, but the pattern reconstructs around the scars. Can’t you hear those recovering arches, loops and whirls going Disney and singing their version of “Some day my prints will come back.” I didn’t think you could, sorry about that. 

The third Lord was Sir Edward Richard Henry. In 1901, he was called home from India to be the Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard, in charge of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). On July 1st of that year, he established the Metropolitan Police Fingerprint Bureau, the first of its kind. Initially the prints were used to establish whether a person had committed prior crimes, but in 1902, burglar Henry Jackson became the first Englishman convicted of a crime based on fingerprint evidence. You could say Sir Henry fingered the criminal. Or maybe you couldn’t. Who knows?

Fingerprints replaced the Bertillon anthropometric measurement system for the purpose of criminal identification. Alphonse Bertillon was a high school drop-out, whose father obtained for him a position in the French police force. Apparently, he was a disturbed man with significant OCD–think Adrian Monk.  He established a system in 1883 that allowed ID records of criminals to be easily found. He categorized criminals using ten measurements:

  1. height
  2. stretch: length of body from left shoulder to right middle finger when arm is raised
  3. bust: length of torso from head to seat, taken when seated
  4. length of head: crown to forehead
  5. width of head: temple to temple
  6. length of right ear
  7. length of left foot
  8. length of left middle finger
  9. length of left cubit: elbow to tip of middle finger
  10. width of cheeks

The filing system was based on these numbers. At one point in time, he tried to incorporate ear prints into the system. Can you imagine asking Charlie Manson to let you print his ear? The results supposedly gave a unique code to every human being.

Fingerprint collection proved superior in providing reproducible uniqueness for identification. The proof occurred at Kansas’ Leavenworth Penitentiary on May 1st, 1903.  An intake records clerk was evaluating new prisoner Will (Willi) West by performing the Bertillon measurements. The clerk thought Will looked quite familiar, even though he was a first-time offender, but the routine anthropometry exam turned out results indistinguishable from another inmate’s whose name was William West. They brought the two men to stand side-by-side, and they looked like twins. (The two Wests denied any relationship, but both men wrote to the same brother, the same five sisters, and an Uncle George. Would criminals lie?) Although their Bertillon classification was identical, it was their fingerprints that revealed differences. At that moment, Leavenworth started using a fingerprint system for convict identification. One month later, Sing Sing prison in Ossining, New York converted to fingerprint identifications, too.

So, the widespread adoption of fingerprints as an identification system was based on the work of two doctors, three lords, and twin criminals. For this gift, you can forget the partridge in a pear tree.

Image courtesy of Encore Editions


  1. Andrew Lenza

    Dr. Lew, so glad I stubbed my pinky on the QWERTY to find your whimsical, well-researched history of fingerprints as a modality to fight [s]grime[/s] crime. Keep up the fine work.

  2. Francine Garson

    Doctor, writer, and now…historian! Interesting information presented with your trademark humor. Looking forward to reading more…

    I know…(too many ellipses)!

  3. B. Preschel

    I am the proud Mama of the writer of this amusing and informative piece…..we call him the punster monster (or munster). (It runs in the family.) Madison Muttnick, M.D. rules.

  4. Joe Tag Line

    Great article, Mr. Mutt. But, isn’t it strange that one of the twin brothers was named Will.
    Do you know anyone named Will that might be, someday, in prison?
    And for what kind of offense?

    “Be on the lookout.” He said, as Joe Tag Line began to reread the informative article.” This piece can be very helpful for any writer.” J Tag Line blurted.

  5. Laura K. Curtis

    [quote]Can’t you hear those recovering arches, loops and whirls going Disney and singing their version of “Some day my prints will come back.” I didn’t think you could, sorry about that.

    CRAP. Now I have an earworm of that. I will seek you out and kill you. I will be very careful, however, not to leave fingerprints!

  6. Clare 2e

    Someday my prints will come? SO painful, but I gather this crowd enjoys the suffering : )

  7. Dr. Lewis Preschel

    I apologized for that Disney quote, didn’t I? If not then sorry again.
    “If you can’t take the pun-ishment stay out of the kitchen.” I think Harry Truman said that to Tinkerbell.

  8. Abby

    Fascinating! Looking forward to reading more medical history from the Mad Mutt.

  9. Joe Pueschel

    The writing is wonderful!! Where do you find these images — so great!

  10. jill preschel

    I like this one a lot!

  11. Assignment Writing

    I appreciate the information, well thought out and written.

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