A Short History of Forensic Science


Since the rise of shows like CSI: Las Vegas on mainstream television in the early 2000s, more and more ordinary individuals have been drawn to the compelling field of forensic science. As from the Latin forensis, meaning “public” or “in open court,” forensic science pertains to the application of the scientific disciplines to criminal and civil laws. We associate it the most prominently with criminal investigations, i.e. in the procurement of admissible evidence and the study of criminal procedures.

Forensic science is a fairly young and ever-evolving discipline. Nevertheless, it has proven indispensable to law enforcement, the trial court system, and crime prevention in society. Here’s a briefer on the heroes in the field, key forensic technologies and processes, and what the future has in store for real-life courts and crime labs.

Some of the First Applications of Forensic Science

Fingerprinting, one of the core processes in forensic science, was utilized thousands of years ago by the ancient Chinese for the purpose of identifying business documents. Much later on, in the late 19th century, English police commissioner Sir Edward Henry refined his eponymous fingerprint system, the Henry Classification System, for use in criminal investigations worldwide.

James Marsh’s chemical test procedure for detecting arsenic in 1836, and Karl Landsteiner’s classification system for human blood (which won him the Nobel Prize in 1930), enabled precise analysis of blood, saliva, and other bodily fluids gathered from criminal investigations.

Other heroes that preceded fictional CSI wizard Gil Grissom are professor and forensic criminologist Edmond Locard, the founder of France’s first police crime laboratory in 1910; and English physician Bernard Spilsbury, who in the 20th century challenged many a court opponent of erring testimony with solid scientific proof.

The Evolution of a Cutting-Edge Field

For its evolution and present global ubiquity, modern forensics has the microscope to thank. With microscopes at their disposal, forensic investigators were able to work with blood, hair, teeth, and other samples drawn from the human body to infer the causes of death. In the modern lab, specialty tools such as microscopes with precision linear stages enable the optimum positioning and movement of loaded samples on their XY axes. This ensures the careful handling and thorough analysis of such complex samples.

Microscopy is also the base procedure behind bullet examination, gunshot residue testing, paper testing, and handwriting classification. Consequently, these are the methods that give scientists eagle-eye views into the distinct circumstances of each crime.

The institutionalization of forensic science began only in the 20th century. The University of Lausanne, Switzerland, was one of the first schools to launch a formal curriculum for forensic science as an academic discipline. Later on, in the 1930s, schools around the world began offering forensic science classes for their criminology programs. The American Academy of Forensic Science (AAFS) was founded in Chicago in 1950.

Forensics in the Near Future

The applications of forensic science are both rich and wide, and the discipline has flourished in times of crisis. For instance, in 1888, some of the first active forensic doctors practiced in London—on the wound patterns of bodies left behind by the infamous Jack the Ripper.

Beyond microscopy and chemical testing, forensic scientists have also begun using computer graphics to reconstruct the scene of the crime. There is talk of using 3D models in the near future to visually represent final crime scenes or bullet trajectories. But the usage of this method in courts is still under debate, for risk of undermining the possibility for error.

For now, it’s of great benefit that the older methods utilized in forensics are being re-innovated. The technologies now include magnetic fingerprinting and alternative light photography, among others.

Ultimately, the core of forensic science will hold steadfast through the years: to use the scientific method in the service of the law, and to aid all persons—living and deceased—in accessing truth and justice.