History of Forensic Science

history of forensic science

Forensic science is a section of the criminal justice system that most people are familiar with nowadays, but few people know how this specialized science came to be. As a whole, forensic science is designed to use scientific principles to explain unknown aspects of a crime. This is done through the use of special tests and lab equipment that allows scientists to precisely identify various parts of a piece of evidence in a crime. If you are interested in learning about how this process came about, you need to read the historical information below. Here is a brief history of forensic science to show you how this practice came about over the years.

Pre-forensic ScienceEvents That Lead to Forensic ScienceSong DynastyForensic Science in Times Past - Forensic Science in the Modern WorldImportant Figures in Forensic Science

Pre-forensic Science

2000 B.C. – Babylonians require fingerprints on contracts to help avoid forgery*

250 B.C. – Chinese use fingerprints to seal official documents as a mark of identification*

250 B.C. – Erasistratus, an ancient Greek physician, discovers that his patients’ pulse rates increase when they are telling lies. Allegedly the first lie detection test**

700 B.C. – Japanese adopt the Chinese identification system for signing contracts*



Events that Led to Forensic Science

Forensic science wasn’t officially developed until the 13th century, but there were many events in history that led up to that time. Once such event was the Archimedes Eureka legend (287-212 B.C), where Archimedes discovered that displaced water could be used to determine the density of a solid object. Archimedes was trying to determine the density of the king’s crown at the time, and he was not able to melt the crown down to calculate that. He was, however, able to sink the crown in water and calculate the amount of water displaced by the crown. Therein he calculated density. This experiment, along with many others, is said to start the history of forensic science.

Forensic Science in the Song Dynasty

The first recorded example of forensic science occurred in the Song Dynasty in China in 1248 when Song Ci was trying to determine who the murderer was in a crime. Song Ci compared the wound on the victim to wounds on animals created by various weapons in order to determine what weapon was used to kill the person. He determined that it was a sickle that killed the man, so he requested that all the members of the communities bring their sickles to one area of the town. Then he watched as the flies in the area were attracted to the smell of blood on one knife. The owner of that knife was determined to be the killer, and the practice of forensic science was born.

Forensic Science in Times Past

1302 – Bartolomeo da Varignana performs a medico-legal autopsy in the case of suspected murder of a nobleman. (books.google.com)
1447 – Missing teeth of the French Duke of Burgundy used to identify remains. First use of dentistry to solve a crime. (Quincy.ca)
1590 – First microscope developed. (University of Dayton)
1609 – Francois Damelle publishes the first treatise on systematic document examination. (Prezi presentation)
1658 – English physician, biologist, philosopher and historian Sir Thomas Browne discovers adipocere –  a fatty, waxy, soap-like substance formed on human corpses buried in moist, air-free places. (Wikipedia: Adipocere)
1686 – Professor of anatomy Marcello Malpighi describes the ridges, spirals and loops in fingerprints. (Emory University)
1775 – Karl Wilhelm Scheele discovers he can change arsenious oxide into arsenious acid, which in contact with zinc produces arsine. This later plays a great part in the forensic detection of arsenic. (Wikipedia: Marsh Test)
1786 – John Toms of Lancaster, England is convicted of murder on the basis of a torn wad of paper found in a pistol matching a remaining piece in his pocket. One of the first documented uses of physical matching. (eHow)
1800s – English naturalist Thomas Bewick uses engravings of his own fingerprints to identify books he publishes. (University of Maryland)
1810 – In return for a suspension of arrest and jail sentence, Eugene Francois Vidocq makes a deal with the police to establish the first detective force, the Surete of Paris. (The Vidocq Society)
1810 – In Germany, the first documented use of question document analysis occurs. A chemical test for a particular ink dye is applied to a document known as the Konigin Hanschritt.
1813 – Mathieu Orfila publishes his toxicology book and is considered the father of forensic toxicology. (Princeton)
1817 – T. Bateman first describes senile ecchymoses when he notes dark purple blotches and determines that they are due to the extravasation of blood into the dermal tissues. (PubMed.gov)
1823 – Anatomy professor John Evangelist Purkinji publishes his thesis discussing 9 fingerprint patterns. (Wikipedia)
1828 – William Nicol invents the polarizing light microscope (Nicol Prism). (Dept. of Physics at Kenyon College)
1829 – Sir Robert Christison publishes Treatise on Poisons, which is for many years regarded as the standard work on toxicology. (U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine)
1829 – Thomas Bell first describes ‘pink teeth’ and assumes they are pathognomonic of hanging or drowning. (Glasgow Dental Hospital and School on Docstoc)
1831 – Leuchs’ first describes amylase activity in human saliva. (PubMed.gov)
1835 – Henry Goddard of Scotland Yard first uses bullet comparison to catch a murderer. The comparison was based in a visible flaw in the bullet, traced back to a mold. (Bryant University)
1836 – English chemist James Marsh develops a test for the presence of arsenic in tissues, known as the Marsh Test, and is the first to use toxicology in a jury trial. (Wikipedia: Marsh Test)
1839 – Dr John Davy recounts experiments with dead soldiers using a mercury thermometer. One of the first attempts to determine time since death using body temperature. (Wikipedia)
1839 – H. Baynard publishes the first reliable procedures for the microscopic detection of sperm, and describes the different microscopic characteristics of various different substrate fabrics. (enotes)
1851 – Jean Servais Stas, a chemistry professor from Brussels, is the first to successfully identify vegetable poisons in body tissues. (U.S. National Library of Medicine)
1851 – Britain passes an arsenic act, attempting to control availability of the poison, which is commonly being used in murder. (Wikipedia)
1853 – Ludwig Teichmann of Poland develops the first microscopic crystal test for haemoglobin using hemin crystals. (enotes)
1854 – English physician Massox develops dry plate photography. This was used in photographing inmates for prison records. (Cornell)
1855 – Auguste Ambroise Tardieu first draws attention to petechial hemorrhages occurring in asphyxial deaths. (Wikipedia)
1862 – Dutch scientist J. Izaak Van Deen develops a presumptive blood test using the West Indian shrub guaiac.
1863 – Taylor and Wilkes write a paper on the determination of time since death from fall in body temperature, introducing many current concepts.
1863 – German scientist Schonbein first discovers the ability of haemoglobin to oxidise hydrogen peroxide, making it foam. This results in the first presumptive test for blood. (books.google.com)
1864 – Odelbrecht first advocates the use of photography for the identification of criminals and the documentation of evidence and crime scenes. (Wikipedia)
1877 – Thomas Taylor suggests that markings of the palms of hands and tips of fingers could be used for identification in criminal cases.
1879 – German pathologist Rudolph Virchow is one of the first to study hair and recognise its limitations. (FBI.gov)
1880 – Henry Faulds of Scotland publishes a paper suggesting fingerprints at the scene of a crime could identify the offender. Faulds uses fingerprints to eliminate an innocent suspect and indicate a perpetrator in a Tokyo burglary. (South Wales Police Museum)
1880 – Burman uses temperature graphs to determine time since death.
1882 – Gilbert Thompson puts his own thumbprint on wage chits to safeguard himself from forgeries. (Hope1842.com)
1883 – Alphonse Bertillon identifies the first repeat offender based on his invention of anthropometry. (Edinboro University)
1887 – Arthur Conan Doyle publishes his first Sherlock Holmes story. (Wikipeda)
1889 – Forensic medicine professor Alexandre Lacassagne attempts to individualize bullets to a gin barrel, based on the number of lands and grooves. (Bryant University)
1891 – Austrian Hans Gross publishes Criminal Investigations, the first description of the uses of physical evidence in solving crimes. (http://www.criminaldep.chnu.edu.ua/en/history/hans_gross.html)
1892 – Sir Francis Galton publishes his book “Fingerprints”, establishing the individuality of fingerprints and a first classification system. (Muskingum University)
1892 – Juan Vucetich develops the fingerprint classification system that comes to be used in Latin America. (NIH.gov)
1894 – Alfred Dreyfus of France is convicted of treason based on a mistaken handwriting identification of Bertillon. (Britannica)
1896 – Sir Edward Richard Henry develops the print classification system that would later be used in Europe and North America. (Wikipedia)
1898 – Forensic chemist Paul Jeserich takes photomicrographs of two bullets to compare and individualize the minutae. (ForensicTechnology.com)

Forensic Science in the Modern World

1901 – Karl Landsteiner discovers human blood group. Max Richter adapts the technique to type stains. (Healio)
1901 – German immunologist Paul Uhlenhuth develops the precipitin test for species. (Dominican University)
1901 – Sir Edward Richard Henry is appointed head of Scotland Yard and forces fingerprint identification to replace anthropometry. (Wikipedia)
1901 – Henry P. DeForrest pioneers the first systematic use of fingerprints in the US by the New York Civil Service Commission. (USMarshals.gov)
1901 – Leone Lattes discovers that blood can be grouped into different categories.
1902 – Professor R. A. Reiss sets up one of the first academic curricula in forensic sciences.
1902 – R. Fischer describes the system of furrows on the red part of human lips, which is later to form a basic for cheiloscopy. (NIH.gov)
1903 – The NY States Prison system begins the first systematic use of fingerprints in the US for criminal identification. (NY.gov)
1903 – At a Kansas penitentiary, new inmate Will West is initially confused with a resident convict using anthropometry. (Crime Museum)
1904 – Oskar and Rudolf Adler develop a presumptive test for blood based on benzidine. (books.google.com)
1904 – Revenstorf conceives the idea that diatoms could be used as a test of distinguishing ante-mortem from post-mortem drowning. (books.google.com)
1904 – Georg Popp uses geological evidence in a criminal case for the first time. (Missouri University of Science and Technology)
1905 – US president Theodore Roosevelt establishes the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI.gov).
1910 – Edmond Locard establishes the first police crime laboratory in Lyon. (Wikipedia)
1910 – Professor of medicine Victor Balthazard publishes the first comprehensive hair stuffy. (Encyclopedia)
1910 – Albert S. Osborne publishes Questioned Documents. (Amazon.com)
1912 – Massaeo Takayama develops another microscopic crystal test for haemoglobin using hemochromogen crystals. (NFSTC)
1913 – J. J. Thomson builds the first mass spectrometer, known as the hyperbola spectrograph.
1913 – Victor Balthazard publishes the first article on individualizing bullet markings.
1915 – Professor Leone Lattes develops the first antibody test for ABO blood types.
1915 – The International Association for Criminal Identification was organised in Oakland, California. It later becomes the International Association of Identification (IAI).
1916 – Albert Schneider of Berkley, California first uses a vacuum apparatus to collect trace evidence.
1918 – Edmond Locard suggests 12 matching points as a positive fingerprint identification.
1920s – Georg Popp pioneers the use of botanical identification in forensics.
1920s – American criminalist Luke May pioneers striation analysis in tool mark comparison. (Complete Idiot’s Guide to Forensics)
1920s – Calvin Goddard, with others, perfects the comparison microscope for use in bullet comparison.
1920 – Charles E. Waite is the first to catalogue manufacturing data about weapons.
1920 – Edmond Locard announces the Locard’s Exchange Principle. (Wikipedia)
1921 – John Larson and Leonard Keeler design the portable polygraph. (The Polygraph Museum)
1921 – Schuller suggests frontal sinuses can be used for identification.
1923 – Vittorio Siracusa develops the absorption-elution tests for ABO blood typing of stains. (NCJRS.gov)
1923 – In the case Frye v. US, polygraph test results are ruled inadmissible.
1924 – August Vollmer of LA, California implements the first US crime laboratory.
1925 – Japanese scientist Saburo Sirai is credited with the first recognition of secretion of group-specific antigens into body fluids other than blood.
1927 – Landsteiner and Levine first detect the M, N and P blood factors leading to the development of the MNSs and P typing systems.
1928 – Meuller is the first medico-legal investigator to suggest the identification of salivary amylase as a presumptive test for salivary stains.
1929 – Japanese scientist K. I. Yosida conducts the first comprehensive investigation establishing the existence of serological isoantibodies in body fluids other than blood. (ForensicDNA.com)
1931 – Franz Josef Holzer develops the absorption-inhibition AB typing techniques that became the basis of that commonly used in forensic laboratories.
1932 – The FBI crime laboratory is created. (FBI.gov)
1933 – Teodoro Gonzales introduces the diphenyl-amine test for Dermal Nitrate in the US to detect GSR. (Marquette University Law School)
1935 – Dutch physicist Frits Zernike invents the first interference contrast microscope.
1935 – Establishment of the first British forensics lab, in Hendon.
1937 – Walter Specht develops the chemiluminescent reagent luminol as a presumptive test for blood. (Wikipedia)
1937 – Holzer publishes the first paper addressing the usefulness of secretor status for forensic applications.
1938 – M. Polonovski and M. Jayle first identify haptoglobin. (University of Michigan)
1940 – Vincent Hnizda was probably the first to analyse ignitable fluid.
1940 – Landsteiner and A. S. Weiner first described Rh blood groups.
1940s – Dental records are compared with teeth from corpses.
1941 – Murray Hill initiates the study voiceprint identification. (Forensic Voice Identification pg.198)
1945 – Frank Lundquist develops the acid phosphatase test for semen. (University of Puerto Rico)
1946 – Mourant first describes the Lewis blood group system. (Britannica)
1946 – R. R. Race describes the Kell blood group system. (NIH.gov)
1950 – Max Frei-Sulzer develops the tape lift method of collecting trace evidence. (Cold Cases)
1950 – M. Cutbush and colleagues first describe the Duffy blood group system. (NIH.gov)
1950 – The American Academy of Forensic Science (AAFS) is formed.
1950 – August Vollmer of California establishes the school of criminology and UC Berkley. (North Carolina Wesleyan College)
1951 – F. H. Allen and colleagues first describe the Kidd blood grouping system.
1953 – Kirk publishes Crime Investigation, one of the first comprehensive criminalistics and crime investigation texts that encompassed theory in addition to practice. (Wikipedia)
1953 – James Watson and Francis Crick publish a landmark paper identifying the structure of DNA. (NobelPrize.org)
1954 – R. F. Borkenstein invents the Breathalyzer for field sobriety testing. (Wikipedia)
1955 – De Saram publishes measurements of temperature I cases obtained from executed prisoners. The papers are considered landmarks in determination of time since death from body cooling.
1957 – Mocker and Stewart develop skeletal growth stages. (BBC)
1958 – A. S. Weiner and colleagues introduce the use of H-lectin to determine positively O blood type.
1959 – Hirshfeld first identifies the polymorphic nature of group specific component (Gc).
1959 – Harrison and Gilroy introduce a qualitative colorimetric chemical test to detect the presence of barium, antimony and lead on the hands of individuals who fired a firearm. (Wikipedia)
1960s – Maurice Muller adapts the Ouchterlony antibody-antigen diffusion test for precipitin testing to determine species.
1960 – Lucas describes the application of gas chromatography to the identification of petroleum products in the forensic laboratory and discusses potential limitations of the brand identity of gasoline.
1963 – D. A. Hopkinson and colleagues first identify the polymorphic nature of erythrocytes acid phosphatase (EAP). (NIH.gov)
1964 – R. A. Fildes and H. Harris first identify the polymorphic nature of red cell adenylate cryclase (AK).
1966 – Brian J. Culliford and Brian Wraxall develop the immunoelectrophoretic technique for haptoglobin typing in bloodstains. (Encyclopedia)
1967 – Culliford, of the British Metropolitan Police Laboratory, initiates the development of gel-based methods to test for isoenzymes in dried bloodstains.
1968 – Spencer and colleagues first identify the polymorphic nature of red cell adenosine deaminase (ADA).
1971 – Culliford publishes The Examination and Typing of Bloodstains in the Crime Laboratory.
1973 – Hopkinson and colleagues first identify the polymorphic nature of esterase D (ESD). (NIH.gov)
1974 – The detection of gunshot residue using scanning electron microscopy with electron dispersive X-rays technology is developed at Aerospace Corporation. (University of Utah)
1975 – J. Kompf and colleague first identify the polymorphic nature of red cell glyoxalase (GLO). (Springer.com)
1975 – The Federal rules of Evidence are enacted as a congressional statute, based on the relevancy standard in which scientific evidence that is deemed more prejudicial than probative may not be admitted.
1976 – Zoro and Hadley first use GC-MS for forensic purposes.
1977 – The FBI introduces the beginnings of its Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) with first computerized scans of fingerprints. (FBI.gov)
1977 – Fuseo Matsummur notices his own fingerprints developing on microscope slides, and relates the information to co-worker Masato Soba, who would later be the first to develop latent prints using Superglue fuming.
1978 – Brian Wraxall and Mark Stolorow develop the multisystem method for testing the PGM, ESD, and GLO isoenzyme systems simultaneously. They also develop methods for typing blood serum proteins. (NIST.gov)
1978 – ESDA (electrostatic document analysis) is developed for obtaining document impressions. (Wikipedia)
1980 – American geneticists discover a region of DNA that does not hold any genetic information and is extremely variable between individuals.
1984 – Sir Alec Jeffreys discovers a method of identifying individuals from DNA – Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism (RFLP), dubbed DNA Fingerprinting.
1985 – UK police first use forensic DNA profiling.
1986 – Kerry Mullis discovers Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) method of replicating particular regions of a DNA molecule. (KaryMullis.com)
1986 – DNA is used for the first time to solve a crime. Jeffreys uses DNA profiling to identify Colin Pitchfork as the murderer of two young girls in the English Midlands. (PBS.org)
1986 – The human genetic group at Cetus Corporation develop the PCR technique for a number of clinical and forensic applications, resulting in the development of the first commercial PCR typing kit specifically for forensic use. (Roche Molecular Diagnostics)
1987 – DNA profiling is introduced for the first time in a US criminal court. (CrimTrac.gov.au)
1988 – Milestone papers are published introducing a novel procedure for the analysis of drugs in whole blood by homogeneous enzyme immunoassay (EMIT). (Wikipedia)
1991 – The Forensic Science Service becomes an executive body. (Wikipedia)
1991 – Walsh Automation Inc., launch development of an automated imaging system called the Integrated Ballistics Identification System for comparison of the marks left on fired bullets, cartridge cases, and shell casings. (NIBIN.gov)
1992 – The FBI helps develop Drugfire, an automated imaging system to compare marks left on cartridge cases and shell casings. (Harvard)
1992 – Thomas Caskey can colleagues publish the first paper suggesting the use of short tandem repeats for forensic DNA analysis. (National Academy of Sciences)
1995 – The world’s first national DNA database commences operations in the UK.
1996 – The FBI introduce computerised searches of AFIS.
1996 – Mitochondria DNA evidence is used in court for the first time in the US. (NIH.gov)
1996 – Police establish the National Criminal DNA Database in the UK. (Parliament.uk)
1998 – An FBI DNA database, NIDIS, is put into practice. (FBI.gov)
2007 – The Forensic Science Service launches the UK’s first online footwear coding and detection management system, Footwear Intelligence Technology. (Wikipedia)

The history of forensic science really picked up in the 16th century as people in the military and the universities began to assess the causes and events in death cases. By the end of the 18th century, books started to come up about forensic science started to appear. As medicine and technology continued to improve the accuracy of forensic science techniques, the field became even more desired. Now virtually every criminal case in America is solved through forensic science in one way or another. There is no telling where the practice will go in the next few years, but one thing is certain – it will be a crucial component of criminal justice for centuries in the future.

Important Figures in Forensic Science

Some forensic scientists and predecessors have made a bigger impact on the process than others. Here is a list of some of the most significant people in the history of forensic science:

You may want to learn about other forensic scientists if you decide to pursue a criminal justice degree in college and the above list should give you a good start. If you play your cards right, you may be a famous forensic scientist over time.


The history of forensic science is a fascinating one, just because of how important this practice is in modern day crime scene investigation. Without forensics, we would still have an array of criminals on the streets because we could not figure out how a crime took place. Theories can only go so far in a court of law. People need evidence to prove that a certain person committed a certain crime. Forensic science provides that kind of evidence so that crimes can be solved accurately.