The Historical Influence of Forensics on Criminology Today

by H. E. James

On October 25, 1888, the London Met’s Robert Anderson asked one of its police surgeons, Thomas Bond, to review some case notes.  After two weeks, Bond wrote a report for Anderson, concluding that “all five murders were no doubt committed by the same hand. In the first four the throats appear to have been cut from left to right. In the last case owing to the extensive mutilation it is impossible to say in what direction the fatal cut was made, but arterial blood was found on the wall in splashes close to where the woman’s head must have been lying.”

Bond continued his report with medical details which spoke to the similarities among the five crimes which he was being asked to detail.  Bond’s two finals points were those which led to him being called a father of modern forensic profiling.  Why was Bond’s report so important?  It signaled a shift in forensic detection, as Bond and the Met were investigating Jack the Ripper.

The case of Jack the Ripper brought forensics to the forefront of news and continues to be fodder for everything from books to movies to TV shows.  Yet, the science of forensics as it applies to criminology has been used in one form or another for centuries and has often had a bearing on law itself.


As early as the 5th Century, B.C., Indian priests were using lie detection to catch thieves.  Donkeys with soot-covered tails were put in darkened tents and the suspects were led into the tents after being told the donkeys would bray if touched by thieves.  Anyone leaving the tent with clean hands was considered guilty, as this indicated they were afraid to touch the donkey, lest it bray and betray their guilt.

Centuries later, in A.D. 1247, Chinese justice Song Ci wrote a treatise which would become a textbook for coroners in China and around the world.  The treatise, Xi Luan Yu, includes the first documented case of the use of forensic entomology to solve a murder.

Song Ci detailed a case in which a man was murdered with a hand sickle.  Villagers were asked to present their personal sickles for inspection.  The sickles were set on the ground, and the villagers and the magistrate, likely Song Ci himself, waited as blow flies danced around the instruments.  As they began to accumulate on one single sickle, the owner of that tool was led away for questioning, shouting for clemency.

The Rise of Modern Techniques

In the 16th, 17th, and early 18th Centuries, a number of doctors and surgeons began recording their observations on changes in the human body.  These led to the formulation of modern pathology.  French surgeon Ambroise Paré recorded his observations regarding soldiers on the battlefield and the effects of ballistics on their bodies.  Two Italians observed the ravages of disease on the physical structure of the body, and German doctor Johann Peter Frank wrote on public health and policy.

The dawning of the Enlightenment Era saw the first application of modern forensics to changes in criminal law.  Comparison of physical evidence, in this case torn newspaper, helped convict John Toms of the murder of Edward Culshaw.  The newspaper, used as wadding for Toms’ pistol, was found in Culshaw’s head wound.  It was matched to the newspaper which Toms had in his pocket.

This form of evidence comparison and use of the scientific method continued with James Marsh’s use of a technique development by Carl Wilhelm Scheele.  Scheele had developed a method for detecting arsenic in the stomach lining of corpses.  Marsh applied this to criminology and forensics when he was asked to prove that a young man had poisoned his grandfather with arsenic-laced coffee.  The young man was acquitted in the case because the sample shown to the jury had deteriorated by that time, though the test itself proved that the coffee had indeed been poisoned.

Marsh, irritated by the instability of the test, went on to perfect a new test which was so sensitive it could detect one-fiftieth a milligram of arsenic in any given sample.

At the same time Marsh was perfecting his forensic technique, compatriot Henry Goddard was comparing flaws in ballistics to their manufacturing origins in order to provide evidence for Scotland Yard.

Into a New Era

Fingerprints had been used for millennia as a form of identification, but they weren’t used for criminology purposes until the 19th Century.  They served as means of detecting the validity of identities on documents such as contracts, etc., but it was the work of Briton William Herschel that pioneered their use in identifying criminals.

While working for the Indian Civil Service near modern-day Calcutta, Herschel first instituted the use of fingerprints for document identification.  This helped him prevent relatives from collecting monies which they were not legally allowed — the 19th Century equivalent of pension fraud detection.  Herschel then began fingerprinting prisoners upon sentencing to their terms, thus cutting down on attempts to avoid serving the sentences.

Francis Galton helped turn fingerprinting into the modern forensic science it is today by identifying common types of fingerprints and by creating a classification system still in use today.  He wrote about his findings in three separate books, including 1892’s Finger Prints.  In this text, Galton calculated that the margin for error on fingerprint identification was just one in 64 billion.

Galton also contributed to the field of anthropometry.  Anthropometry is the measurement of the anthropological features of person.  It was first applied to criminology by French police officer Alphonse Bertillon.  Galton took the concept to a darker place in the history of forensics, using its concepts to coin the term eugenics.

Jack the Ripper’s Influence

The Whitechapel murders of the late 19th Century were considered a turning point in forensic detection.  In addition to Bond’s profiling work, teams of officers were sent out among the population to conduct interviews and collect evidence, what would today be called “canvassing.”  In the case of Jack the Ripper, this canvassing helped eliminate vast quantities of suspects.

Bond’s use of psychology as applied to the physical evidence was a landmark moment: Bond had performed the autopsy on Mary Jane Kelly, not just reviewed the notes of colleagues.  Bond didn’t just profile the crimes, but he gave Anderson a picture of the person who committed the crimes.  As most who study criminology (and pop culture) know, it still didn’t help the London police force catch the killer.

Yet Bond’s influence is still felt today.  He is credited as one of the first profilers, and profiling is now common practice, especially in investigating serial crimes.

DNA Changes the Scenery

As scientists perfect techniques for sequencing deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), they also perfected its use in criminal profiling.  No longer were criminologists limited to the use of fingerprints to identify suspects.  They could take samples of DNA, from hair or saliva or even pieces of skin, and convict criminals.  One of the first documented cases of DNA profiling was the conviction of the killer of two teenage girls in the United Kingdom in the 80s.  Alec Jeffreys helped pioneer the techniques used to convict the killer.

The establishment of forensic associations and institutions continue to foster the growth of the field.  They also help proliferate its history among crime professionals.  The United States has one of the oldest forensic associations, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, established in 1948.

With technology changing the world, there’s no telling where forensic science is headed.  Perhaps the killings of Jack the Ripper will finally be solved.  Regardless, a strong understanding of the basis of the science can help anyone going into a field related to criminology today.

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