top of page

The Fingerprint Files

by Niamh Wood

Dr. Henry Faulds

Henry Faulds was a Scottish doctor, missionary, and scientist most noted for the development of fingerprinting and the ability to identify people through these prints.

Henry Faulds was born June 1st, 1843, in Beith, North Ayrshire. His parents, though initially wealthy, lost much of their fortunes following the City of Glasgow bank collapse in 1855. Due to this, Faulds was unable to continue his education for want of funds and was forced to drop out of school aged 13. He went to Glasgow and found employment as a clerk to help support his family.

After working for several years, Henry decided to enroll at the Facility of Arts at Glasgow University when he was 21 to further his education. Here he studied mathematics, logic, and the classics. When he was 25, he realised that his true passion was medicine, and went on to study this at Andersons College and graduated with a physician's license.

Following his graduation, Faulds became a medical missionary for the Church of Scotland. In 1871, he was sent to India, where he worked for two years in Darjeeling in a hospital for the poor. On July 23rd, 1873, Faulds received a letter of appointment from the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland to establish a medical mission in Japan. That September, Faulds married Isabella Wilson and the newlyweds departed for Japan in December.

Faulds established the first English-speaking mission in Japan in 1874. He soon became fluent in Japanese and started tutoring medical students at the local university. Faulds helped to introduce Joseph Lister’s antiseptic methods to students and Japanese surgeons. In 1875, Henry helped found the Rakuzenkai, Japan's first institute for the blind. He continued his work in Japan and helped massively in the medical field. Faulds halted a rabies epidemic and helped stop the spread of cholera. Whilst in Japan, he founded and became the surgeon superintendent of Tsukiji Hospital in Tokyo. By 1882, his hospital managed to treat approximately 15,000 patients annually.

In the late 1870s, Faulds started to become involved in archaeological digs in Japan. On one of the digs, he noticed fingerprints imprinted on ancient pottery. He began to study modern fingerprints and became convinced that the pattern of ridges was unique to everyone. Shortly after these observations, his hospital got broken into. The local police arrested a member of staff that Faulds believed to be innocent. Faulds decided to take it upon himself to compare the fingerprints at the crime scene to those of the suspect and found them to be different. With this evidence, the police released the suspect.

To promote the idea of fingerprint identification, Faulds wrote to Charles Darwin with his ideas. Darwin passed them on to a relative, Francis Galton, who passed them to the anthropological society of London. In 1880, Faulds published a paper in ‘Nature’ magazine on fingerprints. In his article, he wrote how they could be used to catch criminals and suggested how this could be executed. However, the following month, Sir William Herschel, a British civil servant based in India, wrote to ‘Nature’ explaining how he had been using fingerprints to identify criminals since 1860. Some years later, a paper stating that Herschel had suggested forensic usage before Faulds was delivered to the Royal Institute. A bitter controversy between the two men arose and prompted a battle of the letters between Faulds and Herschel that continued until 1917 until Herschel admitted that it was Faulds who first suggested the forensic use of fingerprints.

Once this was settled, Faulds moved and worked in London as a police surgeon. In 1922 he sold his practice. Rudolph Teusler bought his clinic in Tokyo and renamed it St Luke's International Hospital. Henry Faulds passed away in March 1980, bitter at the lack of recognition he had received for his work. In November 2004, a memorial was held in Beith town center close to where he was born, to honour his memory. In 2007, a plaque acknowledging Faulds work was unveiled at Bank House near Wolstantons St Margarets Churchyard, where he's buried. Another plaque was unveiled in 2011 at his former residence. So, despite his lack of recognition at the time, it is fair to say he is now honoured and remembered for his transformational discovery, among other things in the medical field.

bottom of page