The History of Forensic Science: Timeline & Facts

The History of Forensic Science: Timeline & Facts
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  • 0:03 In Open Court
  • 0:47 Forensic Science Early Years
  • 1:23 19th Century Forensic Science
  • 2:56 20th Century Forensic Science
  • 4:29 Modern Forensic Science
  • 5:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Crime scene analysis shows are all the rage right now. But how did we get to where we are today? In this lesson we'll review the history of forensic science, stopping along the way for some notable and interesting contributions.

In Open Court

Crime scene analysis is a popular topic for TV shows and movies these days. With all the cool technology and analysis techniques available for forensics, it's hardly surprising. But even though our cultural fascination with forensic science may be new, the field itself has a long history. Forensic means 'in open court' in Latin, which makes sense since we think of evidence, facts, and clues when we think of forensics.

Forensic evidence collection at a crime scene
evidence collection at a crime scene

There's not one person or event that sparked a forensic revolution, but we can look to certain scientific and technological advances that contributed to what's familiar today. So let's take a journey through history to see how forensic science has grown and developed throughout the years.

Forensic Science Early Years

Let's start with the year 1302 when the first legal autopsies were performed in Italy by Dr. Bartolomeo da Varignana. These were fairly rudimentary because he had only his eyes and tools to help him, but the information gained from examining bodies in this way was an important step.

Jump ahead to 1590 when the microscope was invented by Hans and Zacharias Janssen. Can you imagine modern forensics without even a simple microscope? This was a game changer, since it allowed for finer examination and comparison of things like glass, hair, fiber, and even teeth.

The invention of the microscope greatly advanced the field of forensic science

19th Century Forensic Science

As we leap into the 19th century, things noticeably pick up for the field of forensic science, though keep in mind that throughout this time it's still a self-taught field that doesn't have any official standardization or coordination. Some of the major highlights of forensic advances during the 1800s include:

  • Using evidence documents known as questioned documents
  • The invention of the polarized light microscope, often used today in fiber analysis
  • Using photography for criminal identification and crime scene documentation
  • Identifying insect stage development in corpses to determine the time elapsed since death

The year 1832 is when James Marsh developed the first arsenic test. Up to this point, arsenic was essentially untraceable, making it a perfect murder weapon.

In 1835, the first bullet comparison was performed. The bullet itself had a small flaw, which was traced back to the mold, leading to the identification of the person who bought, and later shot, said bullet.

Fingerprint analysis officially gained traction in the late 1800s

And in 1892, fingerprints finally made an official name for themselves as forensic evidence. Today, fingerprints are what most people first think of when they think of crime scene evidence, but until almost the 20th century, the individuality of a person's fingerprints was only suspected. That year marks the discovery of both the first crime solved by fingerprint analysis and the calculation by Francis Galton that fingerprints had only a 1 in 64 billion chance of being alike.

20th Century Forensic Science

As we enter the 20th century we see even more developments. In fact, you can pick almost any year in the 1900s and find some new discovery, technology, or technique that contributed to this field.

Let's start in 1900. It's during this year that the different human blood types, ABO, are discovered by Karl Landsteiner. This allowed crime scene investigators to match blood from a victim to blood at the scene.

In 1902, the first academic curriculum for forensic science was developed in Switzerland. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt established the FBI, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the first forensic police crime lab was created in 1910.

The breathalyzer was invented in 1954

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