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Crime Laboratories

Historical Perspective

The word forensic comes from a Latin term meaning "in the court" or "public forum." Forensic science applies scientific knowledge within a court of law. Forensic science has existed for many centuries. Its beginnings can be traced to thirteenth-century China where in 1248 a scientist wrote a book called Hsi Yüan Lu (The Washing Away of Wrongs). The author tell readers to not be surprised if solving a crime comes down to the difference between two hairs.

Although much of what the author discusses relies solely on superstition, Hsi Yüan Lu clearly demonstrates aspects of forensic detection that are still used today. For instance, the book discusses the importance of analyzing wounds inflicted on a dead body. Most importantly, the book talks about the need to study the scene of a crime. Hsi Yüan Lu teaches that to solve a crime, one must carefully observe all clues.

The Chinese first used fingerprint identification to match documents to their authors in the eighth century. By the nineteenth century four main types of fingerprints were identified: arches, loops, whorls, and composites. Fingerprint patterns proved to be unique to each person. By studying the arches, loops, whorls, and composites, criminalists could compare fingerprints to see if they matched. This idea has not changed and is still the fundamental basis of modern fingerprint technology.

An early famous case of firearm identification came from the Bow Street Runners, a group of policemen in England, who became famous because of their success in catching criminals. In 1835 one of the Bow Street Runners, Henry Goddard, was called to the scene of a shooting. After the lead bullet was removed from the dead man, Goddard examined it and found a distinctive ridge. By comparing the marks on bullets from the firearms from several suspects, Goddard determined the source of the bullet and arrested the guilty party. Following Goddard's lead, many cases involving firearms were solved by the careful analysis of the marks left behind on spent bullets or casings.

A criminal records specialist uses the computer to check fingerprints online. (AP/Wide World Photos)

Another ancient scientific study involved poisons. The word toxicology comes from the Greek word toxicon, which means poison. Greek physician Hippocrates (c. 460–380 B.C.E.) introduced toxicology by describing the use and effects of poisons. In the Middle Ages (c. 500–c. 1500), an Italian noblewoman named Catherine de Medici (1518–1589) experimented with poisons by giving them to people of the lower class and then recording their reactions. In the nineteenth century a Spanish physician named Mathieu Joseph Bonaventura Orfila (1787–1853) was the first scientist to introduce chemical analysis as proof of poisoning in a court of law.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawCrime Laboratories - Historical Perspective, Crime Laboratories, Fbi Crime Laboratory, Engineering Research Facility, Sniper Attacks, Solving Old Mysteries - Modern forensic investigations