Henry Faulds: the Invention of a Fingerprinter 

Gavan Tredoux
December 2003

With the publication of Colin Beavan's Fingerprints: The Origins of Crime Detection and the Murder Case that Launched Forensic Science (Hyperion, 2001) a great deal of attention has once more been focused on the role that the Scottish physician Henry Faulds played, while a medical missionary to Japan, in the discovery of fingerprint identification.  The combative Faulds (1843-1930) tirelessly promoted his own priority in the history of fingerprinting, and after his death his case was taken up by the enthusiastic Scottish barrister George Wilton Wilton (1862-1964), who wrote a book and a stream of pamphlets on the subject.  This was well-ploughed ground before Beavan, casting about for a subject, started digging in it.  A careful researcher would have been suspicious at once, especially since the issue has been caught up in the bluster of Scottish Nationalism, Faulds having been born and raised in the small town of Beith, Ayrshire. Beavan's book has since been seized on by partisans of Faulds, including a Faulds society based in Beith, which intends to have a monument erected to his memory.  Most reviews of the book have been positive, though the specialist journals have shown little interest.  Some simple searches on the Internet reveal that Beavan has found many enthusiastic admirers, who accept most if not all of his arguments.  The trouble is that few of these admirers appear to have taken the trouble to read anything at all about this subject other than Beavan's book.

Beavan's complaint is that the true inventor of the fingerprint method is really Henry Faulds, who was cheated of his claim by a conspiracy among the leading scientists of the day.  He insists that there was a "secret pact" between Francis Galton and William Herschel - who are commonly credited with pioneering the modern use of fingerprints - to discredit Faulds.  Beavan insists that Galton stole Faulds' research, passing it off as his own.  To bolster this argument, he supplies a considerable deal of secondary detail, largely consisting of capsule biographies of personages connected with the history of fingerprinting, and racy accounts of gruesome murder cases.  He accepts, without criticism, all of Faulds' own contentions about his role in the development of fingerprinting.  Since Beavan's stated intention was to write a popular story, and not a scholarly account, he has not conducted any original research in the area.. He adds nothing to the controversy that was not already stated by previous Faulds enthusiasts.  The bibliography he supplies is rather incomplete and sometimes plainly inaccurate, and he often misrepresents his stated sources.  There is nothing in his material to substantiate the charges he makes against figures like Galton, and no reason to reverse the settled judgment of Faulds - that he was an interesting but minor figure. 

Henry Faulds is not without interest; one of those delightfully eccentric characters  who enlivened Victorian science, brimming with original ideas, a talent for scientific observation, diverse interests and peculiar personality traits.  Born in 1843 into a Presbyterian family then successful in trade, he was well-educated until the business folded, after which work in menial jobs saw him through medical training in Glasgow, briefly under the renowned Joseph Lister.  Deeply religious, though somewhat at odds with his scientific training, he worked abroad as a Presbyterian missionary doctor, first in India (where he quarreled with the church authorities) and then in Japan from late in 1873 to the mid 1880s.  It was in Japan that he first stumbled on fingerprints, after noticing (as he tells it) the patterns in signature impressions left by Japanese potters in their work.  It is hard to pin down the precise date that this happened.  From his very first publication it seems that it was sometime in early 1879, perhaps late 1878. Faulds' publications prior to this (1878a, 1878b) make no mention of fingerprints, so it is reasonable to suppose that the correct date is no earlier than late 1878.  After gathering some prints from his students, he noticed that they seemed distinct, and he hit upon the idea of using impressions of fingerprints to find their owners.  Exactly how thoroughly he investigated this is hard to determine, as we have only his own description of this to go on, and he supplied little detail until 1905 and later, after which he had already become embroiled in public controversies about his role. There is generally a lack of independent corroboration for many of Fauld's claims, and it appears that the secondary literature that has built up around this topic has not provided much more than repetition of the story told by Faulds himself.  Faulds certainly did not publish any detailed accounts of his research in the medical or scientific journals of the time.  He wrote to Charles Darwin early in 1880,  but Darwin plead illness, and forwarded the letter to his cousin Francis Galton.  The letter seems to have made little impression on Galton, who was then at his busiest scientifically, so he forwarded it to the Royal Anthropological Society, who took no interest in it (the letter would later be returned to a surprised Galton, who had evidently forgotten all about it, in 1894).  Beavan seems unaware that Galton forwarded the letter, and informs his readers that Galton simply buried it; if he had consulted Pearson's definitive three volume biography of Galton (1914, 1920, 1930) or even the popular biography by Forrest (1974), he would have discovered the contrary, but Pearson isn't even mentioned in the bibliography or the text at any stage.  The idea that Galton deliberately buried the Faulds letter is an essential part of Beavan's conspiracy theory, and is repeated several times in the text.

Later in 1880, Faulds published a letter in Nature (Oct. 28) titled "On the Skin-furrows of the Hand", in which he described how he had noticed human and later animal fingerprints, and racial differences in the patterns (1880).  He described how to take impressions using printer's ink, and mentioned some conjectures about the use of prints in ethnological classification, in forensic identification of criminals, and in determining identity through prints of relatives. Most importantly, he mentioned in closing the "for-ever-unchangeable finger-furrows of important criminals". 

Faulds gave two concrete instances where he had used prints forensically to establish the identity of people at "crime" scenes.  Here we have only his descriptions of the events to go on.  The first involved theft of surgical alcohol from a bottle in his hospital, which he was able to trace through a set of ten greasy prints on the bottle to one of his employees.  The second involved a sooty palm print left on a hospital wall by a burglar, which he was able to show did not match someone accused of the burglary.  At least, that is the way the second incident has been commonly told, following Faulds' own description in Nature.  However, many years later Faulds corrected this second case (1912), stating that the sooty palm print contained no discernible fingerprints!  In fact, he based his analysis on the general outline of the hand, and this second case has nothing to do with fingerprint analysis.  Neither Beavan nor anyone else appears to have noticed this crucial correction.  Obviously Faulds' own reports of his use of fingerprints should be treated with caution.

As later research has shown, some of Faulds' ideas about fingerprints were on the right track, but others were not.  For example it is true that fingerprints do not change, but Faulds gave no reason exactly why he believed that to be true.  The careful reader would have noted that early in his letter Faulds stated that that "I was led, about a year ago, to give some attention to the character of certain finger-marks".  How could Faulds have reached such far-reaching conclusions about the permanence and uniqueness of fingerprints on the basis of just one year of experience?  This was picked up at once by William Herschel, who wrote a follow-up letter to Nature (1880) in which he stated that he had used fingerprints in India for identification "for more than twenty years", and that he doubted if the method could be used to reliably identify the race of an individual. As Herschel diplomatically put it, "the conclusions of your correspondent seem, however, to indicate greater possibilities of certainty".  After this exchange, the scientific study of fingerprints for identification seems to have sunk without a trace, until it was revived in 1888. Nobody else seems to have taken any notice of the letters from Faulds and  Herschel.

Faulds published nothing further on the subject of fingerprints, anywhere, until 1894, when he sent a highly controversial letter to Nature.  His first publication containing any detail, a book, appeared in 1905.  Exactly what Faulds was doing about this between 1880 and 1905 is unclear.  His own writings indicate that he resigned himself to defeat after sending several letters to police forces around the world urging the use of fingerprints to identify criminals.  After 1884 he left Japan (except for a very short return) and settled in England, where he later founded several unsuccessful journals, and wrote a book describing his experiences in Japan.  It is curious that this book, Nine Years in Nipon, contains no mention of fingerprints, or even of the pottery fragments that formed an essential part Faulds' retelling of the story (1885).  There are many other details, including memorable meals that Faulds had, interesting places he had visited, and descriptions of plants and animals; but nothing on fingerprints.  It seems likely that he did not then realize how important the study of fingerprints would become, and did not appreciate the ramifications of the research effort required to turn it into a science.  It can be inferred from his writings that whatever collection of prints he had undertaken in Japan was not pursued, apart from "observations from time to time ... to confirm my early results" (1911: 326),  when he returned to England  (suffering, he says, from "exhausting illness from climate and overwork", though it appears that he had really fallen out with the Church authorities about the future of the mission in Japan). One can collect prints anywhere in the world, so there was no inherent reason why, if he intended to pursue the matter, he could not have enlarged his collection in England.  Nor is there any reasonable explanation, apart from his own inactivity in the field, for the absence from the professional journals or the popular magazines of any description of his work and findings.

Faulds was briefly in contact with Scotland Yard to advocate the use of fingerprints for forensics, in 1888, but evidently nothing came of this.  The police may have considered Faulds a harmless crank, an impression that might have been reinforced by his aggressive personality.  With hindsight it is clear that his problems included a lack of evidence.  People would not believe that fingerprints were permanent or unique until the evidence was substantial - after all, body features can change remarkably with age. Official bodies are conservative by nature and require a great deal of evidence and persuasion to budge.  The lack of interest shown in Faulds is also something of a problem for Beavan's story, since if nobody took Faulds seriously there is no obvious reason to believe that a conspiracy was needed to silence him.  By 1894 Faulds was so out of touch with the whole idea of identification by fingerprinting that he only became aware of it again through newspaper reports about the parliamentary committee appointed to investigate its use.  The critical period in the development of the science of fingerprinting was from 1888 to 1893, so this places Faulds in a very marginal position.  His later accounts showed some awareness that this was a problem for his story, and he claimed to have been troubled by doubts, worried that fingerprinting might be misused to wrongly convict people, if the method was not sound.  This is rather at odds with his first flush of enthusiasm, and the idea, which Beavan subscribes to, that Faulds spent a great deal of time advocating its use.  Regardless of this, he certainly did not publish any evidence or account of a system which could be used reliably.  If he did have evidence, he had the means, knowledge and opportunity to publish it, and he published a great deal of other material during this period.

Galton had shown little interest in the letter from Faulds forwarded by Darwin, or in the exchange between Herschel and Faulds in Nature in 1880.  He was drawn into the field eight years later by another route, the field of anthropometry.  Galton had been a pioneer in anthropometry, as part of his general interest in identifying and measuring variable traits, with a view to establishing their heritability (his Anthropometric Laboratory at the Kensington Museum of Science collected a vast number of measurements, the greater part of which were not fully analyzed till 1985).  The French criminologist Bertillon had devised a system for identifying criminals based on a comprehensive set of measurements, and Galton had been asked to deliver a talk on the method.  Galton doubted whether Bertillon's system was theoretically sound, since body measurements are not independent, greatly reducing the number of possible (measurable) combinations.  This was unknown to Bertillon. Galton himself was only then pioneering the statistical formulation of correlation and regression.  Galton cast around for alternatives to "Bertillonage", as it was called, and was led to re-examine the use of "finger marks".    In his Memories, Galton recalls that he sent a letter to the editor of Nature requesting more information about fingerprints (1908).  This letter cannot be traced now, and the editor may have put him directly in touch with Herschel, who agreed to give him access to all the material he had collected in India, on condition that he be given due credit.  This material from Herschel was invaluable to Galton, who was keenly aware of the need for solid evidence of the permanence of fingerprints, collected over a substantial period of time.  He was able to supplement this evidence with prints of his own, collected through his Anthropometric laboratory, and by the early 1890s had the most comprehensive collection of prints in the world.

Beavan concocts a peculiar explanation for the collaboration between Herschel and Galton, attributing it to a preference on Galton's part for working with members of the Victorian elite: "Though Faulds had published a far more significant and valuable contribution on fingerprints, Galton, ever the elitist, preferred associating with Herschel" (Beavan: 104).  Beavan gives no supporting evidence for this venture into Galton's mind.  A far simpler explanation (the letter to Nature) is available from Galton himself, in his autobiography (Galton, 1908).   Since Herschel had a collection of prints stretching over many years, this supplied what Galton wanted: hard evidence.  There is no way of knowing why Faulds did not enter the picture.  It is possible that Galton did not take Faulds very seriously because his claims made in his letter to Nature were left unsupported. Galton is known to have been severe on others for omitting hard evidence; his reviews of The Weather Book, by Admiral FitzRoy of Voyage of the Beagle fame, roundly criticized FitzRoy's penchant for making unsupported assertions (1863a, 1863b). In the Athenaeum Galton was especially severe:

"He asserts the influence of various laws, but is careless of adducing the evidence by which he himself was originally induced to recognise their existence. Here is the fatally weak point of the whole of Admiral FitzRoy's reasonings ... the character of Admiral Fitzroy's arguments conveys an idea, whether rightly or wrongly, the his meteorological convictions are based on no surer ground than vague observation; that without caring to fortify his impressions by a rigorous appeal to fact, he has contented himself with quasi-reasons for their justification." (1863b: 117)

There was (and still is) also no indication that Faulds was still actively at work in the field in 1888, in a scientific sense.  Moreover, Galton is known to have collaborated readily when the opportunity arose.  He worked with Dr. F. A. Mahomed on pthisis portraiture and the collection of family records, and with Joseph Jacobs on composite portraiture; he pioneered the collection of scientific data from the general public through circulars, questionnaires and prizes for submissions.  It is unlikely that he would knowingly have passed up hard data simply out of spite or snobbery. 

Beavan has confused creative writing here with history, and this is a continual problem throughout his book.  He assures us that Galton did not title his "Personal Identification" lecture "Bertillonage" because he "couldn't bring himself to selflessly glorify someone else's work" (2001: 102), which is just invention on Beavan's part.  Likewise we are told that Fauld's musings about the racial aspect of fingerprints was "all Galton needed to kindle his interest" (2001: 103), but Beavan does not trouble his readers with the evidence.  Later we learn that "with Galton's encouragement, Herschel came to consider that he, not Faulds, deserved to be known as the true inventor of the fingerprint idea", but Herschel is not a character in a novel and Beavan has no way of knowing this, nor does he ever tell us how and where, precisely, Galton is known to have "encouraged" Herschel in this way.   In the most bizarre claim in the book, Beavan goes even further, to claim that there was actually an organized conspiracy between Galton and Herschel: "Herschel and Galton privately agreed to promote themselves as fingerprinting's pioneers, according to a letter Herschel wrote to the Times many years later." (2001: 104-5)   Elsewhere in the book Beavan refers to this as a "secret pact". 

In return for Herschel's assistance, Galton would tell the world that Herschel had put the "finger-print system into full and effective work ... as early as 1877, after some 20 years' experimenting for this one definite purpose." ... Promoting Herschel as the originator of fingerprinting had its advantages for Galton. Claiming he took his lead from Herschel, Galton need never credit Henry Faulds with the ethnographical and criminal identification ideas Galton intended to develop. He could say that they were the natural extensions of Herschel's ideas, which he pursued with Herschel's blessing. By the version of events they agreed upon, Herschel would be the system's originator, and Galton its developer. They left Henry Faulds out in the cold. (Beavan: 105)

The trouble with this remarkable "pact" is that Beavan has invented it.  The letter referred to is known and easily consulted (1909), though Beavan was somehow unable to date it accurately in his list of references.  There is no mention of a secret pact in it. Herschel states simply that he agreed to turn over his original data to Galton if Galton would give him credit for it, which Galton was happy to do.  The quid-pro-quo referred to Beavan is not mentioned there at all.   Galton's published works on fingerprints (e.g. 1892b) contain numerous detailed references to prior work in the field, and Galton never claimed to be the first to study them.  Aside from Herschel, he credits the Czech Purkenje, and many others, including a brief mention of Faulds himself.  Why, then, would Galton need to engage in complicated agreements to denigrate Faulds, who had published nothing but a short letter on the subject?  Simply asserting that Faulds was not part of the Victorian elite will not do. The claim that "Galton appropriated Fauld's ideas without giving him credit" is baseless, as a closer examination of Galton's contributions shows.

Galton's study of fingerprints aimed to establish some basic propositions that he considered prerequisites if they were to be a reliable method for identifying individuals.  It had to be proved that fingerprints:

  1. persisted over a long period of time (decades, at least);
  2. were unique to an individual;
  3. could easily be classified, stored and matched in large numbers.

Galton established all three of these propositions over a period of 7 years, producing three books about fingerprints and more than a dozen scientific papers and popular articles.  The data originally collected by Herschel was critical in proving the first proposition (persistence).  Herschel had been quite taken with fingerprinting, and had obtained prints from a number of his associates and friends several decades before; these were now retested and it was clear that their prints remained substantially the same.  Galton himself collected a very large collection of prints, first from his anthropometric laboratory (thumb prints) and then more generally, ranging over several races.  It appears that he continued, like Herschel, to do this for many years, carrying a small fingerprinting apparatus with him and imposing himself on those he met for their prints.  This collection came to number over 8000 prints, enough for Galton to establish that exact repetition of fingerprint patterns was at most exceedingly rare; by making some simple assumptions, he was able to show that the odds against any single fingerprint occurring in any finger of any individual are at least 39 to 1. Pearson raised this by many powers, by considering minutiae in the print (1930).  The third proposition (indexing and retrieval) led Galton to devise a classification, storage and retrieval scheme that was later adapted by E. R. Henry and put into use internationally.

Beavan tries to amplify his charge that Galton stole Faulds' ideas, by emphasizing the speculations that Faulds had made in 1880 about the racial character of fingerprints, which Faulds thought would be a useful way to identify the race of an individual (he also thought that the prints of a close relative could identify an individual) .  Here Beavan gets almost all of the story wrong.  Galton had been investigating the racial character of any human trait he could measure for decades before he turned to fingerprints, and hardly needed suggestions from Faulds in this regard. What his research on fingerprints themselves showed was that, while there is some small variation in patterns, it is not useful in practice.  Even if Fauld's article had made any impression on Galton, this amounts to a disproof of Faulds' racial hypothesis, and Galton considered that line of inquiry a dead end (Herschel had also raised his doubts in 1880 about Faulds' confident assertions regarding racial identification by fingerprints).  Later work has shown that Galton was correct about the small, though certainly present, racial variation in print patterns.

Galton's promotion of fingerprinting led to its consideration by a Parliamentary committee in 1894, and despite initial resistance it was put into use in the courts as early as 1895 (Times 1895).  Shortly after the committee issued its report, Faulds entered the field again, apparently after reading about its activities in the newspapers.  Faulds seems to have been resigned to the fact that the police would never adopt his ideas about fingerprints.  He was furious now that his thunder had been stolen by others.  Since he also had no knowledge of any of Galton's publications in the field, it is reasonable to assume that Faulds was squarely outside the scientific mainstream in 1894, and even beyond the pale of the general reading public; Galton had published very widely on the topic, from proceedings of learned societies like the Royal Institution (1888b) and the Royal Society (1891e), to Nature, the Times (1893f), and even popular magazines of the day like the Nineteenth Century (1891c). Faulds had evidently seen none of these articles, nor had he seen Galton's two books on the subject (1892b, 1893a). 

Faulds wrote an angry letter to Nature (1894), insisting on his priority as founder of the science of fingerprinting.  Faulds referred now for the first time to Herschel, calling his claims allegations, and challenging him to produce an official document he had sent in 1877: "a copy of that semi-official report would go far to settle the question of priority, as its date is nearly two years previous to my having noticed the finger-furrows".  Faulds wanted to know: "What precisely did he do, and when?"  This letter backfired on Faulds. Herschel promptly published a curt reply, including a copy of the "semi-official report" in question, dated "Hooghly, August 15, 1877". Referring to Faulds' original research, he was skeptical:

"To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Faulds letter of 1880 was, what he says it was, the first notice in the public papers, in your columns, of the value of finger-prints for the purpose of identification. His statement that he came upon it independently in 1879 (? 1878) commands acceptance as a matter of course.  At the same time I scarcely think that such short experience as that justified his announcing that the finger-furrows were "for-ever unchanging." (1894).

Even though Herschel readily agreed that Faulds was the first to publish on the subject, and even though Galton readily acknowledged the same, Faulds would always return to this in his later writings as if it was still in dispute and required some demonstration, which he could always supply convincingly; evidently he would not take "yes" for an answer.  Wilton repeats this argument too, many times over, producing a sense of fatigue in the reader, which is intensified when all of Wilton's many works about Faulds are read in conjunction with Faulds' own publications.

Faulds did not reply to Herschel, and published nothing further on fingerprints until 1905, after which he still refused to accept Herschel's document of 1877, insisting in a letter to the Birmingham Post that the recipient was not identified by name (1905b).  However, as Pearson later pointed out, this could easily have been established from the publicly available India List of that year (1930).  Still, during this silent period from 1894 to 1905, Faulds was not exactly inactive: as Beavan reports, he spent a considerable amount of time badgering government departments for some sort of official recognition, without success.  With age, the conviction that he had been cheated grew till it consumed him.  His enthusiastic champion, George Wilton Wilton, who devoted 30 years to championing his cause, was moved to describe one of Faulds' self-vindicatory pamphlets as "pathetic to read" (1938).  Faulds even went so far as to petition Winston Churchill (then the Liberal Home Secretary) for a knighthood! He was prompted, apparently, by Galton's own elevation.  When this was refused, he had his M. P. put questions in the House to Churchill, asking for an explanation. 

By 1905 fingerprinting was well-established. Galton himself had more or less withdrawn from the field by the late 1890s, devoting his attention once again to biometry and genetics, and then to the surge of interest in eugenics after the turn of the century.  Faulds re-emerged in 1905, and proceeded to publish several books and pamphlets on the subject, and a number of articles in popular journals.  He even founded another journal of his own, financed on his own meagre income and devoted exclusively to fingerprinting, which had a short run.  This requires some explanation: what did Faulds hope to achieve at this late stage?  Possibly to write himself back into a position of prominence in the field.  His first full-length publication on the subject (1905a) simply left out any mention of Galton's influential books.  An account he wrote for the popular magazine Knowledge (reprinted in Scientific American) gives a simple progression from his own work in Japan to the appointment of the parliamentary committee of 1894, to the adoption of fingerprints internationally (1911).  In between, Galton merits a sentence.  This self-inflation drew a rare reaction from Galton, who preferred to avoid public controversies.  Up till now Faulds had been at odds with Herschel, but never with Galton, who would assiduously avoid him in the future and advise others to do the same.  Galton's annoyance showed now in his review of Faulds' first book, published in the supplement to Nature (1905).  Beavan claims that this review was "unsigned", and so afforded Galton a "veil of anonymity" to mask an attack on Faulds.  Not so:  inspection of the review shows that it is signed "F. G.", as Galton's reviews in Nature usually were, initials which were not only well-known to readers of Nature but especially so to those interested in fingerprints. 

Before considering Galton's own review, it is worth mentioning the review by Arthur Shadwell in the Times Literary Supplement, who describes Fauld's book as "desultory" and complains that it is larded with too many unnecessary quotations with no relevance. Faulds himself is identified as "a man with a grievance" given to "tedious, silly-clever sarcasms" and Shadwell warns us that "if Mr. Faulds thinks his case will be assisted by writing of this kind he must have a pretty poor opinion of his readers". Of Faulds' original work on fingerprints, Shadwell writes:

"It does not go very far. The thing was not taken up; Mr. Faulds does not appear to have applied it practically himself, and though he subsequently worked out a system of classification, he has not published it.  From his own account, it is not the system worked out several years later by Mr. Galton and published in 1892, nor the system adopted in Bengal in 1894, extended to the whole of India in 1897, and subsequently to Great Britain." (1905)

In this context, Galton's review seems mild.  Galton credits Faulds as "a zealous and originator investigator of fingerprints" when stationed in Japan, and says that he appeared to be "the first person who published anything, in print, on this subject", but that his proposals "fell flat" because of a lack of evidence:

"It was necessary to adduce better evidence than opinions based on mere inspection, of the vast variety in the minute details of those markings, and ... for purposes of criminal investigation, it was necessary to prove that a large collection could be classified with sufficient precision ... ." (1905)

Galton then refers his readers to the controversy in Nature between Herschel and Faulds, and says of Faulds that "he overstates the value of his own work, belittles that of others, and carps at evidence recently given in criminal cases".  Here Galton is referring to the quixotic campaign that Faulds had launched against the use of single-print matches in criminal convictions, even going so far as to sign up as an "expert witness" for the defense in a trial which included a single-print match.  Faulds did not testify in the trial; the defense had deliberately kept his testimony to the last (not surprisingly, given the nature of their witness); in the end they did not have to resort to him.  Faulds repeatedly refers to this one-print problem in his writings, reiterating the fact that he had advocated taking all ten prints of criminals in his letter of 1880.  He gives the impression that others did not take all ten prints, but this is not true: Galton had collected all ten since 1891.  He seems to have confused the indexing scheme used by Galton with the number of prints actually taken, but this has nothing to do with the use of a single print match. 

Given a single (latent) finger print taken from a crime scene, if all ten prints of a criminal are available then this increases the chance of a positive match, but taking fewer does not increase the probability of a false match: that depends entirely on the likelihood that one print will match another by pure chance.  Galton had established that a perfect match between two single prints was highly unlikely to happen by pure chance, and if enough points of comparison were present, a single print would certainly be good enough.  This presents another problem for Beavan, who artfully turns his discussion to the question of whether the police were then using enough points of comparison.  Regardless of that distraction, Faulds was simply and flatly against using single prints at all, and further alienated himself from Scotland Yard as a result.  In a letter to Nature in 1917, an aggressive response to Herschel's brief book on fingerprinting (1916), he repeated this claim:

"A most curious confusion has arisen from an original police blunder that no two single finger patterns are ever alike, for which, I think, Sir William himself is mainly responsible.  I am quite sure that there is no scientific basis for such an assertion. My syllabic system of classification, applied to a large collection, would enable such an assertion to be severely tested, but I know of no other method in existence which could do so." (1917a)

Faulds insists then that all ten prints should match. Faulds had an unshakeable  faith in his own abilities and in the correctness of his "system", even if he was plainly proven wrong by research in a field that he did not keep pace with. To this day no duplicate fingerprints have ever been found, despite international collections of tens of millions of prints. If forensic fingerprinting really had required a ten print match it would have been stillborn. 

Faulds soldiered indefatigably on - as seen above, he was still having a go at Herschel in Nature even as late as 1917 - publishing several self-vindicatory pamphlets and articles.  He died embittered and financially embarrassed in 1930, no longer able to practice medicine due to infirmity.  His tragedy lay in his inability to put a promising idea into practice, because of his own misjudgments, shortcomings, and some bad luck.  After his death he acquired an untiring champion in the form of George Wilton Wilton, who tried manfully to convince the world that his fellow Scot really did invent fingerprinting, even as we know it. Wilton published an entire book on Faulds (titled Fingerprints: History Law and Romance even though it is almost entirely about Faulds, and mostly based on Faulds' own material) and then bombarded the government and the public with a long series of self-published pamphlets and petitions, ringing with declamations of injustice and wrong, calling for official recognition for Faulds and his surviving daughters (see the example opposite). In the end this pamphlet campaign and Wilton himself, who died at age 101, nearly outlived the aged Faulds daughters. 

Beavan is merely continuing the Wilton Wilton tradition, but with less regard for the niceties.  Even if Faulds continues to attract sympathy and interest today, it is rash to boost his reputation, as Beavan does, by sleight of hand, with little sense of skepticism or critical judgment, and at the expense of those to whom Faulds was in the end little more than an annoyance.


Beavan, C. 2001. Fingerprints Hyperion, New York.

Faulds, H. 1878a. 'Remarks on the Dojo' Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan 6(1).

Faulds, H. 1878b. 'Biological Notes' Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan 6(2).

Faulds, H. 1880. 'On the Skin-furrows of the Hand.' Nature 22 (October 28): 605.

Faulds, H. 1881-3 Chrysanthemum : a monthly magazine for Japan and the Far East (Kelly and Company, Yokohama). Magazine edited by Faulds, which ran to 3 volumes. Held by the British Library.

Faulds, H. 1883a. 'The Beautiful in Nature'. Sunlight 1 (October 15): 11.

Faulds, H. 1884. 'The Origin of Man'. Sunlight 1 (February 15): 235.

Faulds, H. 1885. Nine years in Nipon: sketches of Japanese life and manners A. Gardner, London.

Faulds, H. 1894. 'On the Identification of Habitual Criminals by Finger-Prints.' Nature (October 4): 548.

Faulds, H. 1897 East Asia: A Journal Conducted by Henry Faulds. Marshall, Russell and co.  Held by the National Library of Scotland.

Faulds, H. 1905a. [letter] Birmingham Post (May 16)

Faulds, H. 1904. 'Dactyloscopy'. St. Thomas's Hospital Gazette 14 (January 13): 13.

Faulds, H. 1905b  Guide to Finger Print Classification Wood, Mitchell and Co., Hanley.

Faulds, H. 1911. 'Finger Prints' Knowledge 34 (April): 136.

Faulds, H. 1911. 'Finger Prints: A Chapter in the History of Their Use for Personal Identification.' Scientific American Supplement  (1872, November 18): 326-7.

Faulds, H. 1912. Dactylography. or the study of finger-prints. Milner, Halifax.

Faulds, H. 1913. 'Poroscopy: the Scrutiny of Sweat-pores for Identification.' Nature (August 21): 635-6.

Faulds, H. 1915. How the English fingerprint method arose Wood, Mitchell, Hanley.

Faulds, H. 1917a. 'The Permanence of Finger-Print Patterns.' Nature (January 18): 388-9.

Faulds, H. 1917b. The Hidden Hand: a contribution to the history of finger prints [unknown publisher].

Faulds, H. 1920. The Hidden Hand : vestigia nulla retrorsum : with appendix Wood, Mitchell & Co., Hanley.

Faulds, H. 1921. Dactylography : a journal devoted to the science of finger print identification Webberley Ltd., Hanley.

Faulds, H. and Mitchell, C. Ainsworth 1921. 'Science and the Investigation of Crime' (correspondence) Journal of the Royal Society of Arts 69 (May 13): 420-421

Faulds, H. 1923. A Manual of Practical Dactylography The "Police review" publishing co., London.

Faulds, H. 1926. Was Sir E. R. Henry the Originator of the Finger Print System? Hanley, Webberley.

Forrest, D. W. 1974. Francis Galton: the Life and Work of a Victorian Genius (Paul Elek, London)

Galton, F. 1863a. [Review of The Weather Book by Admiral FitzRoy] The Athenaeum (1838, January 17): 80-1.

Galton, F. 1863b. [Review of The Weather Book by Admiral FitzRoy] The Reader 1 (January 31): 117-8.

Galton, F. 1888a. 'Personal identification and description.' Nature 38: 173-7, 201-2.

Galton, F. 1888b. 'Personal identification and description.' (revised version) Proceedings of the Royal Institution 12: 346-60.

Galton, F. 1888c. 'Personal Identification' The Times May 26: 13c.

Galton, F. 1888d. 'Personal identification.'  Scientific American Supplement 26 (659, August 18): 173-7, 201-2.

Galton, F. 1889. 'Personal identification and description.' Journal of the Anthropological Institute 18: 177-91.

Galton, F. 1890a. 'The patterns in thumb and finger marks.' Nature 43: 117-8.

Galton, F. 1890b. 'The patterns in thumb and finger marks.' Proceedings of the Royal Society 48: 455-7.

Galton, F. 1891a. 'The patterns in thumb and finger marks.' Journal of the Anthropological Institute 20: 360-1.

Galton, F. 1891b. 'Methods of indexing finger-marks.' Nature 44: 141.

Galton, F. 1891c. 'Identification by finger tips.'  Nineteenth Century 30: 303-11.

Galton, F. 1891d. 'The patterns in thumb and finger marks.' Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, B 182: 1-23.

Galton, F. 1891e. 'Methods of indexing finger-marks.'  Proceedings of the Royal Society 49: 540-48.

Galton, F. 1892a. 'Imprints of the Hand, by Dr. Forgeot (exhibited by Francis Galton'   Journal of the Anthropological Institute 21: 282-283

Galton, F. 1892b. Finger Prints.  Macmillan London

Galton, F. 1892c. 'Finger prints and their registration as a means of personal identification.' Transactions of the Seventh International Congress of Hygiene and Demography 10: 301-3.

Galton, F. 1893a. Decipherment of Blurred Finger Prints. Macmillan, London.

Galton, F. 1893b. 'Identification.' [Letter] Nature 48: 222.

Galton, F. 1893c. 'Finger prints in the Indian Army.' Nature 48: 595.

Galton, F. 1893d. 'Enlarged finger prints.' Photographic Work (10 February).

Galton, F. 1893e. 'Recent introduction into the Indian Army of the method of finger-prints for the identification of recruits.'   Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science : 902.

Galton, F. 1893f. 'Identification.' [Letter]  The Times (7 July): 4e.

Galton, F. 1894. Physical Index to 100 Persons Based on their Measures and Finger Prints Privately printed 

Galton, F. 1895a. Finger Print Directories. Macmillan, London

Galton, F. 1895b. 'The wonders of a finger print.' Sketch (20 November)

Galton, F. 1896a. 'Les empreintes digitales' Comptes-rendus du IVe Congres International d'Anthropologie Criminelle. Sessions de Geneve: 35-8.

Galton, F. 1896b. 'Prints of scars.' [Letter] Nature 53: 295.

Galton, F. 1896c. 'Prints of Scars' Scientific American 74 (14 March): 168.

Galton, F. 1899. 'Finger prints of young children.' Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science 69: 868-9.

Galton, F. 1900. 'Identification offices in India and Egypt.' Nineteenth Century 48: 118-26.

Galton, F. 1902. 'Finger print evidence.' Nature 66: 606.

Galton, F. 1905. '[Review of] Guide to Finger Print Identification by Henry Faulds' Nature Supplement 72:  iv-v.

Galton, F. 1908. Memories of My Life Methuen, London.

Galton, F. 1909. 'Identification by finger prints.' [Letter] The Times (13 January).

Galton, F. 1910. 'Numeralised profiles for classification and recognition.' Nature 83: 127-30.

Henry, E. R. 1900. Classification and Uses of Fingerprints Routledge, London.

Herschel, W. J. 1880. 'Skin Furrows of the Hand.' Nature (November 25): 76.

Herschel, W. J. 1894. 'Finger-Prints.' Nature (November 22): 77-8.

Herschel, W. J. 1909. 'The Discovery of Fingerprints' The Times (January 26).

Herschel, W. J. 1916. The Origins of Finger-Printing Oxford University Press, London.

Herschel, W. J. 1917b. 'The Permanence of Finger-Print Patterns.' [Reply to Faulds] Nature (January 18): 389.

Minakata, K. 1894. 'The Antiquity of the "Finger-Print" Method.' Nature (December 27): 199-200

Pearson, K. 1914. The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton Volume 1. Cambridge University Press, London.

Pearson, K. 1924. The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton Volume 2. Cambridge University Press, London.

Pearson, K. 1930. The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton Volumes 3a and 3b. Cambridge University Press, London.

Shadwell, Arthur. 1905. 'Identification by Fingerprints' Times Literary Supplement (October 13): 335.

Wilton, G. W. 1938. Fingerprints: History, Law and Romance, etc. [With special reference to the life and work of Henry Faulds. With a portrait.] London : W. Hodge & Co.

Wilton, G. W. 1950. 'Fingerprints : Scotland Yard and Henry Faulds' Juridical Review  LXII (2, August).

Wilton, G. W. 1951. Fingerprints : Scotland Yard and Henry Faulds Edinburgh : W. Green. (reprint of Wilton, 1950).

Wilton, G. W. 1953 Fingerprint Facts. [With plates.] A. Walker & Son, Galashiels.

Wilton, G. W. 1955. Fingerprints: fifty years of injustice. [On the part played by Henry Faulds in the development of fingerprint identification. With a portrait.] Walker & Son., Galashiels.

Wilton, G. W. 1957. Fingerprints : Scotland Yard ; Ruxton trial revelations ; with a renewed appeal to the British Government for the daughters of Faulds Tantallon Press, North Berwick

Wilton, G. W. 1960a.  Scottish Sheriff's Appeal to Justice Lovers. [An appeal for Civil List pensions on behalf of the Misses Faulds. With a cartoon by Kathleen Yates.] North Berwick

Wilton, G. W. 1960b. Fingerprints : Home Office and Henry Faulds North Berwick.

Wilton, G. W., A. C. Faulds, I. J. Faulds. 1961. Fifth application on behalf of Miss Agnes Cameron Faulds, 85, and Miss Isabella Jane Faulds, 80, surviving daughters of Dr. Henry Faulds ... for royal beneficence [self-published], North Berwick

Wilton, G. W. 1962a. Fingerprints : six years' strife with British government departments, a tale documentarily told of groundless opposition to civil list pensions for daughter of Henry Faulds Tantallon Press, North Berwick.

Wilton, G. W. and A. C. Faulds. 1962b. Fingerprints. Dr. Henry Faulds and his daughters. Open letter to the Right Honourable Richard Austen Butler (on behalf of Agnes Cameron Faulds and Isabella Jane Faulds), etc. [With portraits.]  Published for the Society for Freedom of the Individual, London, by Tantallon Press, North Berwick.

Wilton, G. W. 1963. Fingerprints. Swan song of old "Dr. Fingerprints" [i.e. Dr. Henry Faulds]. Victory won. [With plates, including portraits.] Tantallon Press, North Berwick.

Unknown. 1895. 'Before Mr. Loveland Loveland.' The Times (Wednesday, September 18, 1895): 5a.