Newspaper article Sunshine Coast Sunday (Maroochydore, Australia)

Father of the Mug Shot 'A Pioneer'; as a New Exhibition Investigates the Evolution of the Forensic Sciences, Nick Clark Pores over the Unparalleled Contribution of the Visionary 19th-Century French Criminal Profiler Alphonse Bertillon

Newspaper article Sunshine Coast Sunday (Maroochydore, Australia)

Father of the Mug Shot 'A Pioneer'; as a New Exhibition Investigates the Evolution of the Forensic Sciences, Nick Clark Pores over the Unparalleled Contribution of the Visionary 19th-Century French Criminal Profiler Alphonse Bertillon

Article excerpt

TOWARDS the end of the first chapter of The Hound of the Baskervilles, a prospective client tells Sherlock Holmes he is only the "second-highest expert in Europe" in criminal matters.

When the detective demands to know the identity of his better, the response comes: "To the man of precisely scientific mind, the work of Monsieur Bertillon must always appeal strongly."

The name of Alphonse Bertillon may have dwindled beside that of Holmes, but his fingerprints are all over the early years of the forensic sciences at the end of the 19th century, and his influence persists to this day.

The Frenchman developed a number of advanced techniques, most notably in standardising criminal photography -- he has been dubbed the "father of the mug shot" -- and his work features in an exhibition, Forensics: the Anatomy of Crime, that has opened at London's Wellcome Collection museum.

The criminologist's early life gave little clue that he would rise to the top of the field. As a young man, he left the army and eventually found a lowly junior clerical job at the Prefecture of Police in Paris in 1879.

But data was in the blood: his father was chief of the Bureau of Statistics and Alphonse's brother would go on to help found the International Statistics Institute.

When Bertillon took up his post, the criminal records at the prefecture were in chaos.

Re-offending rates were rising yet there was no concerted approach to improve the identification of recidivist criminals. So the resourceful Bertillon set to work on a formal cataloguing process.

He became interested in anthropometry, the study of human variation, and devised a system of measuring criminals' distinguishing features, developing instruments to measure the length and breadth of the head, arm and finger lengths, foot size -- even the protrusion of the eyeball. He then catalogued the measurements of each criminal on individual index cards.

The exhibition will display charts Bertillon designed to catalogue physiognomic variations in features that typically arose in identification -- nose, chin, hair, eyes.

Anthropometry was based on ideas related to phrenology, the bogus science that claimed to infer certain character traits from variations in a subject's cranio- facial structure.

Yet Bertillon himself was doubtful about phrenology: "I do not feel convinced that it is the lack of symmetry in the visage, or the size of the orbit, or the shape of the jaw, which make a man an evil-doer. …

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