Learn About the Early History of Forensic Science

The Origins and History of the Use of Scientific Principles in Criminology

A forensic scientist in a lab with a microscope

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Today, the word "forensics" has become synonymous with crime and crime scene investigation. Immediately conjuring images of crime labs, ultraviolet lights, and high-tech computers, popular crime shows like CSI have brought increased attention to the field of forensic science. They've also generated newfound interest in forensics careers.

The term "forensic" comes from the Latin and means, simply, having to do with the law. Hence, any discipline that has any ties to the legal system is, in fact, forensic. This is why so many job titles within criminology, such as a forensic psychologist, are preceded by the term.

With regard to forensic science, the term is now commonly understood to refer to the application of scientific principles to questions of law. In short, it means using science to solve a crime.

A New Discipline

As ingrained into our criminal justice system as forensic science would seem, the truth is that it is a relatively recent addition, even considering the young history of modern criminology.

When in Rome

The earliest roots of forensic science as we know it can be found in ancient Greek and Roman society. These western civilizations brought great advances in the medical field as well as pharmacology. Extensive knowledge was developed regarding the production, use, and symptoms of various poisons, making it possible to identify their use in previously undetected murders.

Et Tu Brute? The First Autopsy

In the year 44 B.C., the Roman physician Antistius examined the body of the recently slain Julius Caesar and determined that, though the dictator was stabbed 23 times, only one wound through his chest caused his actual death. This is widely regarded as the first recorded autopsy.

The First Innocence Project Case?

Since the Roman model is the basis for our court and legal system today, it is fitting that it also provides the precedence for our interest in applying scientific principles in the examination of evidence. In the first century A.D., the Roman orator and jurist Quintilian was able to show that bloody handprints left at a scene of murder were meant to frame the defendant, an innocent blind man, for his own mother's murder. As the Roman Empire declined in the west, forensic science remained fairly stagnant for the next millennium, as did the applications of criminology and criminal justice.

The Beginning of Pathology

In thirteenth-century China, the book Hsi Duan Yu (The Washing Away of Wrongs) was published and is considered to be the first known guide to pathology. The work describes, among other things, how to determine whether a victim drowned or was strangled as a cause of death. It also detailed how the criminal investigator identified the type of blade used in the murder by examining the corpse and how to determine whether a death was accidental or murder.

Forensic Scientific Advances

Beginning in the seventeenth century, as the age of enlightenment bloomed, advancements in science and the social conscience saw the field of forensic science receive a revitalization of sorts. A new appreciation for the application of the scientific method in nearly all inquiries, criminal or otherwise, necessitated new means for identifying and solving crimes.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw an explosion of recorded incidents of the use of scientifically obtained evidence to solve crimes and win convictions. Evidentiary techniques including connecting a piece of crumpled newspaper used for wadding in a pistol to a matching, torn piece of paper in a suspect's pocket as well as matching clothing fibers, grains, and footprints to those found on a suspect accused of murdering a young woman.


Perhaps the biggest leap in forensic science, though, came in 1880 with the work of Henry Faulds and William James Herschel, who published a study in the scientific journal Nature that detailed the fact that human fingerprints were unique to individuals and that no two sets were identical.

The study garnered tremendous professional support and was accepted as fact in the court system, paving the way for broad use of the identification technique that has become a mainstay in the criminal justice field now for more than a century.

A Young but Rich History of Forensic Science

Though it is a relatively new discipline, forensic science has a rich history and an even richer future. As technological advancements come seemingly every day, a forensic science career is a perfect way to marry a curious mind to a public servant's heart.