The Birth and Development of Forensics

The Birth and Development of Forensics

Sign up for blog updates and get an instant 10% off code for NCC Home Learning courses.
Forensic science is a field where precision and exactitude are vital. The developments which make forensics such a trusted and valuable resource in criminal investigations

Forensic science is a field where precision and exactitude are vital. The developments which make forensics such a trusted and valuable resource in criminal investigations – from the crime scene to the courtroom – have taken groundbreaking research and scientific work to discover and perfect. The technology and its uses continue to develop, and with NCC, you could become a part of its exciting future.

So, where did it all begin? As early as the 16th century, medical experts and academics on the continent were beginning to examine the way in which a death caused by extreme violence would damage bodily organs. This was the first time that cause of death was examined in this methodical and systematic way. It was a far cry from the forensic detail of the techniques that have followed it, but it was a huge step in paving the way towards more complex procedural discoveries.

The UK

Whilst those developments happened on the continent, here in the U.K., many groundbreaking techniques were being cultivated. In 1784, the first formative use of what would become Ballistic Fingerprinting was used in a criminal investigation – and was also one of the first examples of Physical Matching.  John Toms was convicted of murder after the torn edges of paper found in his pistol were a match for papers found in his pocket.

 In 1835, the first use of ballistics as we now know it was used by Scotland Yard. Investigator Henry Goddard compared the bullets at a scene to prove that Joseph Randall – the accused – had lied in his testimony. Goddard proved that all the bullets at the scene matched one another and would have come from the same gun, successfully discrediting Randall’s story of an exchange of gunfire between him and a gang of men.

Away from the police stations and court rooms, further technologies were being developed for future forensic use. In 1854, physician Richard Leach Madox perfected dry plate photography. This technique which bettered Daugerre’s version was heralded in forensic circles, as it made taking photos of inmates for prison records a manageable task. This would become crucial in keeping track of repeat offenders and was arguably a prototype for the Criminal Database.

The first major forensic developments regarding blood happened at the beginning of the 20th century. Karl Landsteiner won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of human blood groups in 1901, and his successor Max Richter adapted his techniques to forensic science through validation experiments. The developments of these two men formed the backbone for all subsequent blood work used to convict or clear those accused of crimes.

The 20th Century

The 20th century saw a surge of increasingly advance forensic techniques which only required tiny samples to determine an accurate profile, and were able to prove that the chances of a sample belonging to anyone other than an offender were in the billions-to-one.

Whilst the early decades of the 1900s saw the first murder in the U.K. to be based on fingerprint evidence and Calvin Goddard (no relation to Henry) perfecting the ballistic comparison microscope, the single most important technology so far came in 1984, at the University of Leicester.

It was Sir Alec Jeffreys, a research fellow who discovered a method for identifying individuals by their DNA, using the technique of Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism (RFLP). This system broke down DNA samples into segments, and the resulting restriction fragments were separated based on their length, using a stunning new technique named Gel electrophoresis.

Just three years later, the first major conviction based on DNA took place, appropriately enough in Leicestershire, where a man was convicted of two murders, using this remarkable new forensic tool as the central piece of evidence.

Forensics Now

Since then, DNA techniques have become increasingly more refined, and the cataloguing of forensic information has become more thorough, through systems like the UK’s NDNAD and America’s CODIS.

As with any science, the basics of forensic science and the ethos that created its developments are still key. The focus on precision, the thirst for knowledge and improvement and a commitment to justice have always been central to this field. From logistical matters like being careful to collect evidence without disturbing a crime scene to complex DNA analysis, forensics has always combined precision with progress.

Why not start your journey into forensic science today?

Nick Cooper
Nick is NCC's resident blog author and covers a range of subjects, including teaching and health & social care. NCC is an international learning provider with over 20 years’ experience offering learning solutions. To date, NCC has engaged with over 20,000 employers, and delivered quality training to over half a million learners.
Like this article? Spread the word

Related courses you may also like