Is Friction Ridge Identification a Science?

Los Angeles Sheriff's Department
Los Angeles, CA

The many uses of friction ridge identification range from criminal investigations to non--criminal matters such as deceased/missing persons and disaster victim identification.  In recent years, the applications have broadened into electronically controlled building security systems and welfare fraud prevention systems.  The field of friction ridge identification has significant scientific foundation and involves a variety of sciences.  Now it needs academic recognition as an applied science.

The scientific foundation of friction ridge identification originates with various doctors, scientists and progressive thinkers, many playing a distinctive role in formulating the foundation for the science without ever recognizing its potential.  Both Nehemiah Grew, M.D. with his 1684 report for the Royal Society of London, and the anatomist Govard Bidloo from Holland in his book on human anatomy in 1685, discussed and illustrated their recognition of the friction ridges and the pores within those ridges (Ashbaugh 23).  Over two hundred years ago, J.C.A. Mayer, in his 1788 book Anatomische Kupfertafeln Nebst Dazu Gehorigen, was the first to state that the �arrangement of skin ridges is never duplicated in two persons� (Cowger 4).  In 1823, Johannes Evangelist Purkinje, a German Professor of physiology and pathology described, classified and named patterns into nine groups (Henry 3).

A few years later, in 1858, Sir William Herschel began using fingerprints (Herschel 8).  He required people to affix their fingerprints with their signatures to contracts.  While he failed to declare any recognition of fingerprint individuality, he performed tests over the next fifty--plus years which established the persistency of fingerprints.  In 1880 he published an article in the English scientific journal Nature where he suggested usage for identifying prisoners and pensioned persons.  A month prior to Herschel's article, the Scottish physician and surgeon, Dr. Henry Faulds, also published an article in which he discussed his studies of permanence and made suggestions as to the future of the fingerprint science --� criminal identification by chance prints left at the scene of a crime.  A short time later, Sir Francis Galton, the noted British anthropologist and cousin to Charles Darwin, became interested in the field and published Finger Prints, the first book on the subject.

The scientific research has continued into the 20th Century.  Harris Wilder, Ph.D., a professor of zoology at Smith College, inaugurated a program of biological investigations, with a study in comparative dermatoglyphics, and published the authoritative text Personal Identification in 1918.  Most notably, the late Dr. Harold Cummins, professor emeritus at the medical school of Tulane University, studied what he termed dermatoglyphics from 1921 until his retirement in 1964.  His many articles and the book Finger Prints, Palms and Soles, contribute a significant source of literary reference in support of the basic tenets of friction ridge identification.

The two foundational tenets of friction ridge identification are that all friction skin is unique and the arrangement of detail is permanent (U.S. Gov., Expert Witness 15).  These basic tenets are supported by the natural sciences.  The science of anatomy provides the vocabulary for identifying the structure and components of friction or volar skin.  Bidloo illustrated the friction ridges and pores of a thumb in his book on human anatomy, Anatomia Humani Corporis.  As genetics affect all human development, including the general pattern and, to some degree, the arrangement of ridge detail, genetics becomes an important subject within the field.  Embryology provides the necessary research and literature for understanding the environmental factors which account for the differential growth and resulting ridge detail in volar skin.

Besides the biological sciences, which establish the morphology of skin, the sciences of neurology and psychology provide necessary references for understanding visual phenomena when examiners perform detailed and arduous comparisons.  The comparison process also requires an understanding and practicing of general scientific procedures and methodologies, such as like repeatability of results and providing conclusions which are generally accepted with the field.

In addition to the biological sciences and sciences which support the comparison process, other sciences are associated with the aspect most commonly thought of when people think of fingerprints --� the processing of crime scenes and evidence from crime scenes.  The basic processing techniques involve a physical application of powder(s) to a surface.  However, the more involved techniques involve the proper mixing and use of various chemicals.  Thus, chemistry becomes another science of which the field requires some knowledge.  Applied physics supports the use of lasers and other light sources in the detection and preservation of important evidence.  Photography is an applied science which is utilized extensively in the field of friction ridge identification.  With the dawning of computers, and electronic image enhancement and preservation, computer sciences are deeply entrenched in the field of friction ridge identification.

From the early days, with little literary reference material, to the current day, with substantially more, but still insufficient information, the science of friction skin identification has managed to maintain its credibility and usefulness.  However, academic institutions have yet to recognize the field as an applied science and to furnish the curricula which would provide directed research, literary references, and pertinent libraries.  Without this academic recognition, progress in the field is destined to be sluggish.

Friction ridge identification has matured in the last hundred years.  However, for individuals interested in the field who have not located an agency which provides training for entry level personnel, hopes are often frustrated.  Without academic recognition, there are very few opportunities for obtaining significant training in preparing for this field.  Scholastic curricula would provide the foundational knowledge and allow students the opportunity to test interest and attitude prior to venturing down a tedious career path.

During the past thirty years, the law enforcement profession, in general, and specifically, the field of friction ridge identification, has attempted to raise professional standards by encouraging and, in some instances, requiring degrees for employment candidates.  There is currently a proposed guideline from the federally sponsored Technical Working Group on Friction Ridge Analysis, Study and Technology which suggests a four (4) year college degree for entry level examiners (U.S. Gov., T.W.G.F.A.S.T. 425).  These guidelines also recommend that by the year 2005 this guideline become a requirement.  While the guidelines have good intentions (to raise the professional level) the educational requirement is frequently resisted because of the lack of relevant curricula.

Friction ridge identification, or the science of fingerprints, is clearly an important field within our society.  Its usefulness and acceptance is commonplace.  Friction ridge identification has significant scientific foundation.  It involves a variety of different sciences, and it deserves academic recognition as an applied science and in answer to the title�yes, it is a science, it is an applied science.


Works Cited

Ashbaugh, David R.  �Ridgeology--Modern Evaluative Friction Ridge Identification.�  JFI 41, (1991):  16--64.

Cowger, James F.  Friction Ridge Skin -- Comparison and Identification of Fingerprints.  New York:  Elsevier, 1983.

Cummins, Harold and Charles Midlo.  Finger Prints, Palms and Soles.  1943.  New York: Dover, 1961.

Faulds, Henry.  �On The Skin--Furrows of The Hand,� Nature, Oct 28, 1880.

Galton, Francis.  Finger Prints.  1892.  New York:  Da Capo, 1965.

Henry, Edward R.  Classification & Uses of Fingerprints.  1900.  New York:  AMS, 1974.

Herschel, William J.  �Personal letter,� Nature, Nov. 25, 1880.

Herschel, William J.  The Origin of Finger--Printing.  1916.  New York:  AMS, 1974.

U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation.  The Expert Fingerprint Witness.   Washington D.C.:  U.S. Government Printing Office, 1981.

U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation.  The Science of Fingerprints.   Washington D.C.:  U.S. Government Printing Office, 1984.

U.S. Department of Justice, Technical Working Group on Friction Ridge Analysis, Study and Technology.  Proposed TWGFAST Guidelines.  JFI 47, (1997):  425--437.

Wilder, Harris Hawthorne Ph.D., and Bert Wentworth.  Personal Identification.  Boston:  Gorham. 1918.




This article was originally printed in "THE PRINT"
Volume 14(1) January/February 1998, pp 4-5
and has been obtained from the online library provided by the

Southern California Association of Fingerprint Officers