Forensic Friday: The (Very Brief) History of Forensics

Hey, booknerds! Welcome to the inaugural post of my new feature, Forensic Friday!

But before we get into it, how’s life? When’s the last time you wore real pants? Makeup? Saw other human beings besides the ones living within your four walls?

I’m not going to lie, quarantine is getting to me. I’m going a little stir-crazy. Cabin fever gets worse every day. It doesn’t help that the weather has been jacked the fuck up, too. One day I have a sunburn (I’m gardening a lot to distract myself) and the next day there’s an inch of snow on the ground.

I appreciate every front-line worker, every essential worker, and I recognize how fortunate I am to have been working from home for the last couple of months without suffering any dents to my income.

But at the same time, THIS WHOLE THING SUCKS.

Tig Notaro Quarantine GIF by Team Coco

And it’s really affecting my reading. Is anyone else having a hard time? I just can’t get into it. I finally have all this time on my hands to read, only to be stuck in an endless Groundhog’s Day slump. The vibe is all off and it’s not conducive to tackling my TBR.

My husband is still going into work every day and I supposed the anxiety of him being exposed to getting sick plays into my current state of mind, as much as I don’t acknowledge it. Not to mention, not seeing friends or family. I’m an introvert, but this is a bit much.

My mom retired a few years ago and decided to go back to school (at 60! Amazing!) to fulfill her dream of becoming a nurse, or as close to it as she could get. So, she became a PSW. She’s right in the thick of this virus every day and that’s scary as hell.

Reading should be my escape, but every time I pick up a book I feel…almost…depressed? Just something. Something down. So I’ve been watching a lot of mindless television. Things I can put my eyeballs on without needing to use very much brainpower. That’s been a lot of horror movies I’ve seen a million times already (looking at you Scream,) and a lot of true crime shows.

It gave me an idea. My first one in months!

If I can’t write about books because I’m just not feeling it, maybe I can up the ante on my true crime writing around here and go into the forensics side of things. And thus, Forensic Friday is a go! YEAHHHHHH *in CSI music*

Entrefacasesegredos GIF by Knives Out

Every Friday – who are we kidding? Scratch that. On Fridays that I feel like doing it, I’ll be posting some forensic specific information or cases. This won’t be full crime stories like you get for True Crime Tuesday, but instead will focus on an element of forensics that was unique, interesting or unusual that cracked a case. Other times I might write about forensic processes. I’m far from being an expert in the field, so I’ll be learning right along with you as I write these posts.

Fair warning, things will likely get graphic so there’s your trigger warning if you needed one.

For today, you can unclench for b-hole. For my first post, I figure we should just get into the details about WHERE forensics even came from. What’s the history? Do you even KNOW? Listen, I’m as shocked as you will be to find out it didn’t start with CSI and Gil Grissom, okay?

We can actually date back the field of forensic sciences to the 700s. No, I’m not missing a one. 700s!!!!

History of Fingerprints
700 BC.

The Chinese developed methods of fingerprinting in the 700s in order to identify business documents and clay sculptures. In 1248, the Chinese published a book, Hsi Duan Yi (The Washing Away of Wrongs), where it described how to distinguish someone who had drowned from someone who had been strangled. I guess there was a lot of both going on in those days.

In 1609, the first paper on systematic document examination was published in France. By 1794, it was used to convict a man of murder for the first time. The torn edge of a wad of newspaper inside the murder weapon was matched to the edge of the newspaper still inside his jacket pocket.

The 1800s saw giant leaps forward in document analysis, bullet comparison, toxicology (specifically arsenic detection, probably because bitches be murdering their husbands, but that’s just pure conjecture on my part,) presumptive blood testing, crime scene photography, fingerprinting crime scenes and the development of the first microscope with a comparison bridge.

Henry H. Goddard - Wikipedia
Henry Goddard

The first test for detecting the presence of blood in a forensic context was created, as well as the first crystal test for hemoglobin, which I don’t know what that is but is sounds cool as hell.

Scotland Yard’s Henry Goddard became the first person to use physical comparison analysis to connect a bullet to a murder weapon in 1835.

In 1888, Jack the Ripper was all the rage. Doctors in London, England were allowed to examine the victims of Jack for wound patterns – the first time that had been scientifically applied. Did it do much good? I guess not. But it’s the thought that counts.

By the 1900s, forensics was starting to boom when it came to criminal investigation, but all the experts were self-taught. There were no schools, no formal training and no educational courses. In 1902, Swiss Professor R.A. Reiss established the first-ever forensic science curriculum at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. With all of the new forensic techniques emerging, law enforcement agencies realized they needed to have specialized teams to attend crime scenes and analyze evidence, so in 1910, Edmond Locard, a professor at the University of Lyons, set up the first police crime laboratory in France. For his pioneering work in forensics, he became known as the “Sherlock Holmes of France.”

Edmond Locard - Forensic Chemistry
Edmond Locard.

August Vollmer, the chief of police of the LAPD, was the first to establish an American police crime laboratory in 1924. Even the FBI, established in 1908, didn’t have its own forensic crime lab until 1932.

In the early 1930s, universities in North America began offering courses and degrees in criminalistics and police science. The University of California at Berkeley established the very first academic department dedicated to criminology in 1950. At the same time, the American Academy of Forensic Science (AAFS) was formed in Chicago.

The 1920s established bullet comparison as a popular practice when American physician Calvin Goddard created the comparison microscope to help determine which bullets came from which shell casings. In 1931, the ABO blood typing technique was developed. The first interference contrast microscope was invented in 1935 by Dutch physicist Frits Zernike, for which he received the Nobel Prize in 1953.)

Drunk Driving and The Pre-History of Breathalyzers
The first Breathalyzer.

The 1900s also saw the invention of the Breathalyzer, the study of voiceprint identification, the use of heated headspace sampling for collection arson evidence, and the evaluation of the mass spectrometer for forensic purposes. In the 1970s, a team of scientists at the Aerospace Corporation in California developed a method for detecting gunshot residue by using scanning electron microscopes.

DNA experienced a few firsts by the end of the 1980s when it was used to solve a crime and exonerate an innocent suspect in 1986. The next year, a criminal court case in the U.S. argued the admissibility of DNA. The case seriously challenged the use of DNA and set off a domino effect of events that culminated in the need for certification, accreditation, standardization and quality control guidelines for DNA laboratories and the general forensic community.

The DNA Databank legislation was enacted in 1994, and by the end of the decade, giant leaps forward had been made in DNA analysis in criminal casework.

Use iWitness photogrammetry software for accident reconstruction ...
Photogrammetry software for accident reconstruction.

Forensic scientists, within the past decade, have started using laser scanners, drones and photogrammetry to obtain 3D computer replicas of accidents and crime scenes. Reconstruction of an accident on a highway using a drone can take only 10-20 minutes to collect all required data and can be performed without shutting down traffic.

Forensic sciences are now considered a critical cornerstone of law enforcement; in a time where shows like CSI and NCIS have convinced the general public that forensics can solve anything and should be presented as part of an airtight case in court. Which is sometimes true, sometimes not.

Forensics has become so advanced and forensic scientists have such a wealth of high-tech tools at their disposal for analyzing evidence, that cases once thought to be unsolvable are being looked at again in the hopes that today’s forensic sciences can solve decades, sometimes, centuries-old mysteries, once and for all.

What a time to be alive! Or dead? Either way, wash your hands and socially distance!

Making Out Kate Mckinnon GIF by Saturday Night Live

That’s all I have in me for today. Omg my brain.

I think I’ll go eat cheese strings in bed and watch Forensic Files.

Hey, at least it’s Friday probably!

Until next time, Booknerds!

One thought on “Forensic Friday: The (Very Brief) History of Forensics

  1. This is such an informative article on forensics – I really enjoyed it. I more or less knew that the French, English and Americans made major contributions to the forensic expertise/knowledge but I had no idea that “the Chinese first developed methods of fingerprinting in the 700s”! (interesting!). I also share your anxiety about coronavirus – I think even when people say they are calm and in control, it can still affect them subconsciously and put a lot pressure on their minds.


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