Inky Fingers and Ancient Pots: How Japan Helped Put the Finger on Foreigners

Entering Japan has always been synonymous with fingerprinting, especially for those of us who came here several years ago. It is highly ironic, therefore, that this system, used for fighting crime and keeping tabs on potential terrorists and wayward English teachers, originated here in Japan with a foreigner.

The man in question was Doctor Henry Faulds (1843 - 1930). Born in the small Ayrshire town of Beith, Faulds moved to Glasgow in his teens, where he worked as a clerk, before studying medicine and becoming a medical missionary for the United Free Presbyterian Church. In 1874, he arrived in Japan and founded Tsukiji Hospital, near Tokyo’s famous fish market, for the sick and needy of the city. His devout devotion to the poor was demonstrated when he turned down an offer to serve as physician to the Imperial House.

Staying in Japan until 1886, Faulds ran his hospital, taught Japanese medical students, introduced Dr. Joseph Lister's antiseptic methods to Japanese surgeons, and set up lifeguard stations to prevent drowning in nearby canals. He also defeated a rabies epidemic and helped stop the spread of cholera into Japan. By 1882, his hospital was treating 15,000 patients a year. Despite this mountain of work, he found time to pursue other interests, from archeology to amateur sleuthing. He even found time to originate a system of raised script to allow blind people to read, a precursor of Braille.

But it was his interest in archeology that first pointed him in the direction of fame. Through his friendship with Edward Morse, an American archeologist, Faulds became interested in the shell mounds at Omori, on the coast between Tokyo and Yokohama. Among the discarded shells and bones, left by ancient villagers, there were also fragments of pottery. Faulds noticed that several of these had finger-marks in the clay.

"Unfortunately all of those which happened to come into my possession were too vague and ill-defined to be of much use," he later commented. "But a comparison of such finger-tip impressions made in recent pottery led me to observe the characters of the skin-furrows in human fingers generally."

Fascinated by this, he deepened his studies, receiving thousands of prints from enthusiastic Japanese. As an inventive Scot, he soon started to think of practical applications. In October 1880, the British scientific magazine "Nature" published his paper on fingerprinting, "On the Skin-Furrows of the Hand." This work presented for the first time a comprehensive forensic system based on fingerprinting.

"A common slate or smooth board of any kind, or a sheet, spread over very thinly and evenly with printer's ink, is all that is required," he wrote, explaining how to take prints. "The parts of which impressions are desired are pressed down steadily and softly, and then are transferred to slightly damp paper."

While fingerprints had been used for centuries in places like China as a means of signing bonds and contracts, Faulds was the first to realize their utility as a crime-fighting device.

"When bloody finger-marks or impressions of clay, glass, etc., exist, they may lead to the scientific identification of criminals," he wrote, also explaining how he had used fingerprinting to solve two crimes. The first concerned the petty theft of medical alcohol at his hospital. Finding a beaker that had been used as a drinking glass, Faulds discovered a complete set of prints which he soon proved belonged to a medical student.

A month after this, someone attempted to burgle the hospital by climbing up a wall and through a window. The police accused one of Faulds's staff, but the ridge patterns in a sooty handprint found on the wall, did not match those of the accused, who was promptly released. Faulds was therefore the first man in history to establish the innocence of a suspect and assist in the conviction of a felon using the new technique he had discovered.

Despite setting his ideas and their application out clearly in the influential "Nature," the powers-that-be were slow to respond, so Faulds sought the help of the great scientist Charles Darwin. Darwin, however, passed Faulds's findings on to his nephew, the distinguished scientist, Sir Francis Galton, but Galton was mainly interested in fingerprinting as a way of determining race and character. Galton's colleague, Sir Edward Henry, however, realized fingerprinting's crime-fighting applications and finally persuaded Scotland Yard to adopt Faulds's system, which he then claimed as his own. Faulds died an embittered, largely forgotten man in 1930.

If the establishment forgot him, his hometown did not. A society dedicated to his memory sprung up in Beith, which has campaigned to reinstate Faulds as the rightful father of fingerprinting and has unveiled a monument to him. There is also a smaller memorial commemorating him in the Tsukiji district of Tokyo.

April, 2005
Tokyo Journal

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