The Scots doctor whose fingerprint idea might have helped catch Jack The Ripper

Fingerprint technology is used by police forces around the world in the war against crime
but the man who helped pioneer the idea almost 150 years ago is largely forgotten and uncredited.

Dr Henry Faulds (1843-1930) pioneer of fingerprint technolgy

Dr Henry Faulds 1843-1930

Dr Henry Faulds, the first man to establish the uniqueness of fingerprinting and their forensic application in police work, was born in Beith, Ayrshire on 1 June 1843.

His family were far from rich and although academically gifted Faulds was forced to leave school aged 13 and get a job as a clerk to help his family.

However, after several years of hard work he went back to education aged 21 to study mathematics, logic and the classics at Glasgow University. He graduated in 1871 with a physician’s licence and embarked on a career as a medical missionary in India for the Church of Scotland.

In July 1873 Faulds was appointed by the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland to establish a medical mission in Japan where he set up a hospital to teach Japanese doctors.

Faulds helped introduce Dr. Joseph Lister’s antiseptic methods to Japanese surgeons and in 1875 helped found the Rakuzenkai, Japan’s first society for the blind, as well as setting up lifeguard stations to prevent drownings in nearby canals. He was also credited with preventing a rabies epidemic and the spread of cholera in Japan.

As a sideline to his full-time job and good works Faulds found time to write two travel books about the Far East, numerous academic articles and launch three magazines.

But, it was while on a trip to an archaeological dig in the late 1870s that he made, probably, his most significant discovery.

Everybody's fingerprints are unique as discovered by Dr Henry Faulds

Photograph by: cc D.Sharon PruittFingerprints are unique to each individual.

Faulds was intrigued how finger impressions could be seen preserved in the fragments of ancient pottery. Examining the pattern of ridges on his own fingers and those of his friends Faulds became convinced each fingerprint was unique. It was theory he was soon able to put to the test.

Shortly afterwards his hospital was broken into and an innocent man arrested for the crime. In an attempt to clear the suspect Faulds compared the fingerprints left behind at the scene to those of the suspect and found them to be different. As a result the man was released without charge.

In an attempt to highlight his discovery Faulds wrote a letter in 1880 seeking help from Charles Darwin but the naturalist wasn’t interested an instead passed the idea on to his relative Francis Galton. Galton was eventually credited with the discovery several years later, even though there is evidence Faulds published a paper on the subject of fingerprints in the scientific journal Nature in 1880.

Faulds returned to Britain in 1886 and tried to convince Scotland Yard in the idea of using fingerprint technology to identify criminals but there was no take up. It wasn’t until 1902 that fingerprints were first used in Britain to gain a criminal conviction.

Interestingly Fauld’s approach to Scotland Yard took place two years before the notorious Whitechapel Murders committed by Jack the Ripper in 1888.

Although only conjecture is it possible that if the police had adopted Fauld’s idea would the Ripper’s true identity still be a mystery more than a century later?