PRINT OF TRUE GENIUS; It Took Henry Faulds Years of Painstaking Research to Show How Fingerprints Could Be Used to Prove Guilt or Innocence, Yet Others Took the Credit for a Discovery Worthy of Sherlock Homes

Article excerpt


SINCE the arrival of Sherlock Holmes, created by the celebrated Edinburgh author Arthur Conan Doyle, the world has been aware that something as slight as a fingerprint can be used to catch countless criminals. In The Case of the Norwood Builder, Doyle showed his detective hero taking a keen interest in one particular piece of evidence.

'You have heard that no two thumbmarks are alike?,' said Inspector Lestrade.

'I have heard something of the kind,' replied Sherlock Holmes.

It did not take a magnifying glass to see that the two prints were undoubtedly from the same thumb.

'That is final,' said Lestrade. 'It is final,' said Holmes.

But few are aware of the convoluted case of the man who invented fingerprints - or rather was first to suggest their use as forensic evidence.

The story involves a heap of ancient musselshells, a Japanese ceramic tea-service, slightly flawed, and eventually a worldwide database, infallible, unbeatable, of use to detectives everywhere.

All three lead, in a trail Sherlock Holmes would have been pleased to follow, to the unveiling next weekend in Beith, Ayrshire, of a statue of Dr Henry Faulds.

Faulds is a name that should make wrongdoers quake in their shoes, or perhaps tremble in their gloves, since he was the first to suggest catching them by their fingerprints.

Although revered in Japan for other reasons, he has been neglected in his homeland until now. He felt that neglect keenly. He ended as a cantankerous old man, seeking recognition for the idea he thought of and proved, and for which others got all the praise.

Bitter? You could say so. He was so bitter that, when his invention was at last used as he had intended, in a court of law to identify a murderer, he gave evidence - but against fingerprinting as a means of identification, against the very system he had spent 20 fruitless years trying to get the police forces of the world to adopt.

Neglected? Well, at last he has his footnote in history, even if it has come a little late. And the Japanese still love him. He spent half a lifetime there as a missionary, the first member of the Scottish Medical Mission to minister to Japan.

FAULDS'S early history was similar to that of many who went overseas for their church and their God in the heady days of Empire. Born in Beith in 1843 of poor parentage, he left school at 13 to work for his uncle to help support his family. At the age of 20, he was able to enroll at Glasgow University, and qualified as a doctor five years later.

Soon after, he sailed for India and his first missionary posting in Darjeeling.

After two years, newly wedded to his wife Isabella, he was sent by the United Free Presbyterian Church to open its medical mission in Japan. And there he did great things. It was he who established the Tokyo Institute for the Blind - still going after 120 years.

He introduced Joseph Lister's new methods of antiseptic surgery to Japanese medical students, saving thousands of lives. He set up a system of lifeguard stations to rescue drowning people who had fallen into the country's canal system.

In similar bizarre-but-useful vein he got rid of a plague that had infected a fishmonger's stock of carp.

He was a fan of Charles Darwin and his new theory of evolution. Darwin had looked at the fingers of apes and men and found that both had patterned ridges on them - evidence, he thought, in favour of the theory that we shared a common ancestor.

More indisputably worthwhile, Faulds helped stop the spread of cholera and halted a rabies epidemic that was killing small children. He identified the source as infected mice. By 1882, the hospital Faulds set up was treating 15,000 patients a year.

A useful man, then, leading a good and useful life. And there it might have ended, but for a slightly unlikely friendship he struck up with an American mollusc expert turned archaeologist. …