The history of forensic science relies on definitions to understand. Modern forensic science is a different concept than the ancient version practiced by the Egyptians and Romans. Thus, even though both are relevant, forensic science as we know it today is not as old as you may think. We’ve only been using fingerprints for legal identification for 140 years, after all!
Read on to learn about the multiple definitions of forensic science throughout the ages, including when it began in ancient times and how it evolved to today. Now, forensic science plays into most court cases in one way or another. It wasn’t always this way, however!
What is Forensic Science?
In the broadest possible terms, forensic science means using principles of the scientific method to ask and answer questions in law. Until recently, forensic science was not considered a full-blown profession, though its application can be traced back to Ancient Greece.
The Beginnings of Forensic Science
The very beginning of forensic science begins with the religious rite of mummification. Ancient Egyptians even in 3000 BC removed, examined, and preserved the internal organs of dead leaders for their religious ceremonies. This represents the first autopsy, still a significant aspect of forensic science to this day.
It should come as no surprise that Ancient Greece, the birthplace of modern logic, medicine, and pharmacology, would be the first major player in forensic science. By researching toxins and their effects on the body, the Ancient Greeks could identify the cause of a murder in a rudimentary way, perhaps the first instance of identifiable forensic science.
The Ancient Romans then contributed to forensic science by creating the principles of the modern court system. This included the orator Quintilian using forensics in court as early as the first century.
How Forensic Science Reached the Modern-Day
After the fall of the Roman Empire, court justice laid dormant for many centuries. With it, forensic science became more abstract. The ancient Chinese, however, used pathology to solve crimes, contributing to the development of forensic science during this time. They washed and examined dead bodies and were even able to differentiate between accidents and murders.
The 1700s in Europe saw a resurgence of forensic science when Dr. Ambroise Pare began studying corpses. Criminal investigations began using evidence-based science to prove cases in the 1800s, including the first fingerprint analysis in 1880.
By studying the uniqueness of fingerprints, Henry Faulds and William Herschel established the premise that people could be identified solely by their unique patterns. Sir Francis Galton established a system of classification taken up by the London Police commissioner, Sir Edward Henry. His analysis premises still apply today, called the Henry Classification System.
From this revolution, scientific advances similarly advanced forensic science. The ability to analyze blood with microscopes, differentiate cloth fiber and hair samples, and run increasingly advanced toxicology analyses has led these principles of forensic science to the modern-day.
The history of forensic science begins with mysticism and circumstance. By integrating with modern scientific advances in the 1800s, forensics became viable for court proceedings. Even today, ancient techniques are still used in law to put a criminal away, or set an innocent man free.
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