The Secret History of Identity
12 Famous Men in the History of Biometrics
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Grew, a noted English plant anatomist and physiologist, describes skin ridges, furrows and pores on fingers, hands and feet in a 1684 paper given at the Royal Society of London. These features were also represented in a series of intricate sketches.
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Dutch intellectual Govert Bidloo’s 1685 anatomical treatise, Anatomia Humani Corporis, describes the intricate papillary ridges on human skin and shows them in great detail. While Bidloo’s work was not widely read, it was plagiarized and somewhat expanded upon by noted English surgeon William Cowper in 1698.
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Malpighi, widely considered the “father of modern biological microscopy,” was an Italian scientist, professor and doctor who noted finger ridge patterns in his 1686 treatise, Opera Omnia. Since Malpighi was widely read throughout Europe and corresponded frequently with the English scientific community, he’s thought to have influenced later scientists interested in microscopy and dactyloscopy (fingerprint identification).
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Johann Christophe Andreas Mayer
Mayer was the first European scientist to assert that no two people have skin papillae (ridges) in the same position. His argument for the uniqueness of fingerprints was written in his 1788 work, Anatomical Illustrations with Accompanying Explanations, vol. 4.
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Purkinje, a famous scientist from what is now Czechoslovakia, was the first to make an attempt at classifying types of fingerprint patterns in 1823. Purkinje also discovered reflections of external images on structures within the eye, now called Purkinje images. These images are commonly used for liveness detection purposes in today’s iris and retinal scanners.
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Sir William James Herschel
Herschel, a British colonial official, began to use fingerprints on contracts in 1858 when he was serving in Bengal. He eventually used them for all manner of administrative purposes, which prevented perjury and helped illiterate citizens safeguard their rights. He wrote a book about it in 1916, The Origin of Fingerprinting, and is considered to be the first European to use fingerprints in an administrative context.
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Faulds was inspired to investigate fingerprints while on an archaeological dig in Japan. The delicate finger imprints left by ancient Japanese on shards of their pottery fascinated him. Faulds wrote an 1880 letter to the periodical Nature outlining the unchanging nature of fingerprints and the potential uses of fingerprinting in criminal applications. He was the first European to propose this application, although he wasn’t taken seriously.
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Bertillon was a policeman for the Prefecture of Paris beginning in 1879, and is considered a pioneer in the field of anthropometrics. He was discouraged by the disorder of the French legal system and thought better criminal identification would help improve recidivism. Bertillon pursued a new method by measuring prisoners in his spare time at the La Santé prison. Dealing with hostility from his subjects and from other officers, he was eventually able to develop a system of measurements that was used throughout the Western world for many decades. He was also the inventor of the mugshot.
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Mark Twain was neither scientist nor administrator. Instead, he’s notable for having written the first literary description of the fingerprint as a unique biometric in a forensic context. In his 1883 work, Life on the Mississippi, he recounts the story of a man tracking down a criminal who had wronged him using a thumbprint inked on paper. Twain’s account far precedes widespread use of fingerprint biometrics in criminal identification.
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Sir Francis Galton
Galton is credited for making fingerprinting into a science with his complete classification system. He wrote a great many books on the subject over several decades. The first, called Finger Prints, was published in 1892. His work eventually influenced lawmakers in Britain to consider fingerprinting as a means of identification for criminals.
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Vucetich was the first law-enforcement officer to positively identify a criminal using fingerprints. A police official in Buenos Aires, he was inspired by Galton’s work and adopted a similar system of his own devising in 1891. His first positive identification using fingerprints proved that a mother had killed her own children, despite cutting her own throat to frame an unknown attacker. He eventually became the Director of the Center for Dactyloscopy in Argentina and was an expert in the field in his own right.
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Sir Richard Edward Henry
Henry used fingerprinting during his time as the police chief of Bengal, India, and created his own practical classifications and methods for collection and recordkeeping. He later moved back to Britain and brought his methods to Scotland Yard, where he established the Metropolitan Fingerprint Bureau in 1901. Henry is credited with making fingerprinting a permanent part of the criminal justice system in Great Britain.