Childhood & Early Life
Henry Faulds was born on 1 June 1843 in Beith, Scotland. His parents were initially wealthy but lost much of their fortunes following the City of Glasgow bank collapse in 1855.
Unable to continue his education for want of funds, he dropped out of school as a 13 year old and found employment as a clerk. Later on he became apprenticed to a shawl manufacturer.
After working for a few years he decided to further his education. He was a bright young man and at the age of 21 he started attending classes in mathematics, logic, and classics at Glasgow University.
When he was 25 he realized that his true passion was medicine and enrolled at Anderson's College, Glasgow, and graduated with a physician's license.
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As a college student, Henry Faulds became deeply religious and following his graduation he became a medical missionary for the Church of Scotland. He was sent to British India in 1871 where he worked for two years at a hospital for the poor in Darjeeling.
He joined the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland in 1873. Accompanied by his new wife, he travelled to Japan the same year in order to establish a medical mission.
Upon reaching Japan he established the first Scottish mission with the Tsukiji hospital and a teaching facility for Japanese medical students. He proved to be a very capable physician and soon gained respect among the locals.
He was influential in the founding of the Rakuzenkai, Japan's first society for the blind, in 1875 and a school for the blind in 1880. He also set up lifeguard stations in nearby canals to prevent drowning.
He also became involved in several other pursuits in addition to his full-time work as a doctor. Once he accompanied his friend, American archaeologist, Edward S. Morse, to an archaeological dig. While examining the cooking pots made of clay, he noticed the minute patterns of lines and swirls impressed in the clay.
A few months earlier he had been lecturing his students on touch and had noticed the swirling ridges on his own fingertips. He made the connection and realized that the impressions on the clay vessels came from the ridges on the fingers of ancient potters.
He was now intrigued with the idea of studying fingerprints and over the next few years undertook a series of experiments in order to examine fingerprints with a scientific approach.
He along with his medical students shaved off the ridges on their fingers and later observed that the ridges grew back in exactly the same patterns. He also studied the fingerprints of infants and children to check if growth affected their fingertip patterns.
After conducting several experiments and examining a significant collection of fingerprints, Henry Faulds came to the conclusion that each person has a unique fingerprint.
His first paper on the subject, ‘On the Skin-Furrows of the Hand’, was published in the scientific journal ‘Nature’ in October 1880. In this paper he also predicted the possibility of identifying mutilated corpses through their fingerprints.
Shortly after the publication of this paper, Sir William Herschel, a British civil servant based in India, wrote to ‘Nature’ claiming that he had been using fingerprints to identity criminals since 1860. This created considerable controversy and resulted in bitter feuds between the two men. Later on, Herschel himself gave full credit to Faulds for his original discovery.
Faulds moved to Britain in 1886 and offered his fingerprinting system to Scotland Yard. But Scotland Yard declined the offer probably because Faulds did not present the extensive evidence that proved that fingerprints are unique and durable.
He worked as a police surgeon in Staffordshire in his later years.