History of Forensic Science

The Surprising Start of Modern Forensic Science

“Physical evidence cannot be wrong; it cannot perjure itself; it cannot be wholly absent. Only human failure to find it, study and understand it, can diminish its value.”—Paul L. Kirk

Paper evidence

Who Was Edmond Locard?

Believe it or not, modern forensic science can trace its roots back to the early 1900s, in large part thanks to the brilliance of Dr. Edmond Locard. Often referred to as the French Sherlock Holmes, Locard was a pioneer in what we know today as trace evidence, with his biggest contribution to criminology being his eponymous Exchange Principle.

Locard’s Exchange Principle posits that it’s impossible for a crime to be committed without the criminal leaving—and taking—traces of physical evidence, and that the more violent and intense the crime, the more evidence that is exchanged. He is also responsible for standardizing the use of Galton Points in fingerprint identification. Locard believed that if 12 points of comparison could be matched between prints, it was enough for a positive ID.  

An Early Passion for Medicine and Law 

Locard began his career in medicine, earning his doctoral degree in 1902. His thesis, translated to “Legal Medicine Under the Great King,” reveals an early interest in how medicine pertains to the law. To further his studies, he became the assistant to Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne, a criminologist and professor at the University of Lyon. Lacassagne was not only one of the first people known to conduct bloodstain pattern analysis but created the basis for modern-day ballistics. 

After obtaining his law degree and passing the bar exam in 1907, Locard studied with criminologist and anthropologist Alphonse Bertillon, who is best-known for his methodology of identifying criminals based on body measurements. Somewhat ironically, Locard’s later work with fingerprints would ultimately lead them to surpass Bertillon’s method as the preferred system of criminal identification. While we now know that fingerprints are not foolproof, they are extraordinarily unique as no two people—including identical twins—have the same fingerprints.

A Beacon for Great Criminologists

In 1910, Locard persuaded the Lyon Police Department to let him create what is now considered the world’s first crime lab in the unused attic space of the local courthouse. The lab was officially recognized by the department in 1912, and it became the epicenter of criminological research, as well as the model for other police laboratories, worldwide. Several famous criminologists, including Harry Söderman, the first head of Sweden’s National Laboratory of Forensic Science, got their start at the lab under Locard’s tutelage.  

Locard also contributed his unique combination of expertise to the French Secret Service during World War I, where he was recognized for his outstanding ability to determine a soldier’s cause and location of death just by examining their uniform. 

Although Locard passed away in 1966, his legacy lives on in the world of modern forensics. His seven-volume series, Traité de Criminalistique (Treaty of Criminalistics) is still referred to and read to this day. 

Forensic science still relies on past breakthroughs, but while fingerprinting is critical — A taped confession could be how your case is won too. — CaseCracker will always be ready to support you.