Forensic Science: Origins and Early Methods

Forensic Science is the scientific method of gathering and examining information about the past in which is then used in the court of law. Before the emergence of forensic science methods, criminal charges heavily relied on eyewitnesses or confessions in order to bring about a conviction. This made it very easy for criminals to escape punishment.

During the Enlightenment era of the 18th century, however, more rational values began to permeate society, which heavily influenced the way in which criminal investigations took place. The use of torture to force confessions was reduced and replaced with more evidence-based, rational procedures.

Early Cases Using Forensic Science

In a 1978 murder case, in Lancaster, England, a man by the name of John Toms was tried and convicted for murdering Edward Culshaw with a pistol. After the dead body was examined, and a pistol wad was found in Culshaw’s head which matched perfectly with a torn newspaper found in Toms’s pocket, they were successfully able to convict John Toms.

In a 1816 murder case, in Warwick, England, a farm labourer was tried and convicted for murdering a young maidservant. She had been drowned in a pool and bore the marks of a violent assault, leading police to investigate the area. They found footprints and an impression from corduroy cloth near the pool which corresponded exactly to the breeches of the farm labourer.


In 1773, Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele devised a method for detecting arsenious oxide in corpses. This discovery was later expanded upon by German chemist Valentin Ross, who was able to detect the poison in the walls of a victim’s stomach. These practices were used to detect the use of poison in murder cases as early as 1832.


In 1835, Henry Goddard became the first person to use physical analysis to connect a bullet to a murder weapon. He found a flaw in the body of a victim and was able to trace the bullet flaw to a hold used in the manufacturing process.


Anthropometry refers to the measurement of the human individual. Alphonse Bertillon, a French police officer, was the first to apply this technique to law enforcement by creating a identification system based on physical measurements. Previously, criminals were only identifiable by name or photograph, inspiring Bertillon to develop a reliable system of human classification during the 1870s.


Sir William Herschel was one of the original advocates of fingerprinting for the use of identifying criminal suspects. He used fingerprints for security measures on documents as well as for prisoners to prevent those attempting to avoid serving a prison sentence. Francis Galton and Edward Henry, later implemented Herschel’s fingerprinting practices into fighting crime.