Fingerprinting technique and its unique Bengal connection

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In the year 1880, a letter with a rather curious message landed on the desk of Sir Charles Darwin. The great English naturalist, whose theory of evolution had taken the world by storm in the mid-19th century, was not in the best of health. So, despite the letter’s intriguing contents, he passed it on to his cousin, the well-known Victorian-era polymath, Francis Galton.

When he didn’t hear back, the sender, a Scottish Presbyterian medical missionary, Dr Henry Faulds, decided to take immediate action. He wrote to the respected science journal, Nature, which published a paper he had written, titled On The Skin-Furrows of the Hand. Instantly, the scientific community knew they were looking at a revolutionary invention.

Faulds’s paper discussed the technique of fingerprinting, how he had studied it, and how it could be used as a forensic tool in criminal investigation.

His paper was read with great horror by William James Herschel, a retired civil servant, who had worked in India for the British. Herschel had experimented with fingerprints in Bengal for over 20 years, and Faulds may have stolen his thunder! He wasted no time and wrote a response to Faulds's article in the next issue of Nature.

In his letter, Herschel asserted that he had been collecting fingerprints since the 1860s, and had, in fact, used a handprint to successfully identify a man in 1858. Therefore, he claimed, he was the true inventor of the fingerprinting process!

Herschel’s rejoinder triggered a controversy that raged for four decades. Who should get credit for inventing fingerprinting as a means of personal identification and for its potential application in solving crime? Things became even more complicated when Francis Galton weighed in.

William Herschel And His Brainwave

William James Herschel | Wikimedia Commons

When William James Herschel (1833–1917) arrived in Bengal in 1853, at the age of 20, he had no intention of making history. He was here to serve as a junior civil administrator for the British East India Company and later for the Crown. But his posting as a Sub-Divisional Officer in Jungipore (now Jangipur in Murshidabad district), in 1858, was a turning point.

Rajyadhar Konai's handprint at the University College London under The Galton Collection

In July that year, Herschel was about to seal a deal on behalf of the government, with a local supplier of road binding materials, when he had a brainwave. On impulse, he asked the supplier, Rajyadhar Konai, to put the impression of his palm on the back of the contract.

Herschel dabbed Konai’s palm and fingers with the oil-ink he used for his official seal and pressed Konai’s hand on the back of the contract. Herschel later commented that the purpose of the handprint was "... to frighten [Rajyadhar] out of all thought of repudiating his signature."

Herschel was very pleased with the result and made a habit of requiring palm prints from all government contractors thereafter, so that they could not dispute the contract terms at a later date. These contracts were recognised as valid documents by the Bengal government.

In 1860, Herschel was promoted as District Magistrate in the neighbouring Nadia district, soon after the Indigo riots and violence. Fraud and forgery were rampant on rent records, rent agreements and rent receipts submitted by zamindars, to the detriment of poor and illiterate farmers.

It was here that Herschel truly recognized the potential of the handprint and fingerprint in preventing fraud. With the district criminal court, prison, registration of deeds, and payment of government pensions under his control, he used fingerprint identification everywhere.

In 1863, Herschel urged the Bengal government to make fingerprinting as a means of identification in all government offices a part of official procedure but the government turned down his suggestion. It had been only six years since the Revolt of 1857, which had been triggered among Indian soldiers, who believed they were forced to bite off bullet casings dipped in a substance that violated their religious beliefs. The government didn’t want to risk insulting Indians by asking them to put ink on their palms for fingerprinting.

Power of Persistence

Herschel was not discouraged. Perhaps his pedigree had something to do with that, for he realised the power of persistence in the pursuit of greatness. Herschel’s grandfather was Frederick William Herschel, the famous Hanover-born British astronomer and composer, well known for his discoveries of the Uranus, infrared radiation, and the moons of Uranus and Saturn.

The young civil servant’s father, John Herschel, was also an astronomer, a mathematician and an experimental photographer, who invented the process of creating engineering blueprints and the use of the Julian day system in astronomy.

Just before Herschel completed 25 years of service in India, when he became the District Magistrate of Hooghly, he discovered rampant impersonation in the collection of government pensions. Pensions were being collected on behalf of deceased employees by their relatives and by fraudsters. So he demanded that each retired employee submit his own handprint as proof of identification, as a prerequisite for receiving his pension. Cases of fraud fell drastically!

Buoyed by his success in using fingerprinting as a fool-proof means of personal identification and its practical applications, Herschel pushed his case. In August 1877, as the District Magistrate of Hooghly, he once again urged the Bengal government to give fingerprinting an official seal of approval.

This time, he suggested that fingerprinting be used to identify criminals in jails, during registration of land deeds, and for collecting pensions. He pointed out that after furlough, when hardened criminals returned to prison, they would get innocent men jailed as proxies, by offering financial inducement or by physical threat.

But the government was still not sure of this new process and did not agree. Herschel returned to England soon after and later wrote about his experiences with fingerprinting in his book, The Origin of Finger-Printing, published in 1916.

Henry Faulds’s Epiphany

But, it seems, Herschel wasn’t the only person fascinated by fingerprints and their practical application. Turns out, when he was collecting and studying them in Bengal, a Scottish medical missionary was doing the same in Tokyo.

Henry Faulds | Wikipedia

Henry Faulds (1843 – 1930) was posted as a missionary in Darjeeling in India in 1873 before he headed for Tokyo, where he set up a hospital the next year. Here, Faulds worked as a doctor, taught medical students and lectured to Japanese surgeons. He was consulted on controlling epidemics, introduced modern antiseptic methods to surgery, was the first foreign physician to perform post-mortems in Japan, and even developed a system of raised letters, a forerunner of Braille, so that blind individuals could read the Bible.

Faulds’s initial brush with fingerprints took place in the most unusual way. One day, he was marvelling at ancient clay pots excavated by an archaeologist-friend, when he noticed minute patterns of parallel lines impressed in the clay. Then it hit him – these were the fingerprints of ancient potters and they went back around 2,000 years!

Faulds immersed himself in the study of fingerprints. Just like Herschel, he too realised that they were unique to each individual. He also went to painful lengths to test the hypothesis that an individual’s fingerprints did not change over time.

To do this, he and his medical students shaved the skin off their own fingertips, repeatedly, and every single time, the skin grew back in exactly the same patterns. Since they could not be altered, they were an excellent tool to identify people.

Faulds sensed he was onto something big and so he wrote to Charles Darwin in early 1880, detailing his work on fingerprinting and seeking his opinion. Darwin, as we know, forwarded the letter to Francis Galton, who too wasn’t very impressed with Faulds’s claims. He, in turn, forwarded the letter to the Royal Anthropological Society, possibly for a second opinion. But they took no interest in it.

When he received no response from Galton, Faulds sent in his paper to Nature a few months later.

Francis Galton Steps In

When Faulds’s paper was published, Herschel immediately wrote to Nature, which published his findings. He also knew Galton, and at some point, the two of them discussed Herschel’s work in India. In a lecture at The Royal Institution of Great Britain, the premier institute for scientific education and research, in 1888, and in his own subsequent books, Galton mentioned Herschel as the person who had invented the fingerprinting technique, while he mentioned Faulds only in passing.

Galton was the first person to devise a system of classifying fingerprints but he went as far as to claim that he too was involved in the invention of the fingerprinting process! All these unwarranted manoeuvres by Galton fuelled the conflict between Herschel and Faulds, and claims and counter-claims continued till 1916, when Herschel published his book The Origin of Finger-Printing.Thereafter the controversy started to subside.

By the 1920s the scientific community had largely accepted that the idea of fingerprinting as a means of personal identification had been introduced by William Herschel in India, and that their potential use in forensic work in criminal investigation had been accomplished by Dr Henry Faulds in Japan. Soon, investigating agencies around the world warmed up to the idea of incorporating fingerprinting into their crime-fighting arsenal and began using it as a tool to solve crime.

As is often the case with scientific discoveries and inventions, credit for this one too must be shared. But there is one man whose imprint in fingerprinting history is indisputable – an Indian contractor named Rajyadhar Konai, who placed his inky palm on a government contract in 1858. And, with that, the small town of Jangipur too left its mark on history.

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