- This article deals with forensic science, used in legal proceedings. For forensic/public speaking, see Debate and Individual events.
Forensics or forensic science is the application of science to questions which are of interest to the legal system as well as social sciences such as archaeology.
For example, forensic pathology is the study of the human body to determine cause and manner of death. Criminalistics is the application of various sciences to answer questions relating to examination and comparison of biological evidence, trace evidence, impression evidence, drugs and firearms. Forensic odontology is the study of the uniqueness of dentition, and forensic toxicology is the study of drugs and poisons, and their effects on the human body.
The use of the term "forensics" in place of "forensic science" could be considered incorrect; the term "forensic" is effectively a synonym for "legal" or "related to courts". However, it is now so closely associated with the scientific field that many dictionaries include the meaning given here.
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The "Eureka" legend of Archimedes (287–212 BC) can be considered an early account of the use of forensic science. In this case, by examining the principles of water displacement, Archimedes was able to prove that a crown was not made of gold (as it was fraudulently claimed) by its density and buoyancy.
The earliest account of fingerprint use to establish identity was during the 7th century. According to Soleiman, an Arabic merchant, a debtor's fingerprints were affixed to a bill, which would then be given to the lender. This bill was legally recognized as proof of the validity of the debt.
The first written account of using medicine and entomology to solve (separate) criminal cases is attributed to the book Xi Yuan Ji Lu (洗冤集錄, translated as "Collected Cases of Injustice Rectified"), written in 1248 China by Song Ci (宋慈, 1186–1249). In one of the accounts, the case of a person murdered with a sickle was solved by a death investigator who instructed everyone to bring their sickles to one location. Flies, attracted by the smell of blood, eventually gathered on a single sickle. In light of this, the murderer confessed. The book also offered advice on how to distinguish between a drowning (water in the lungs) and strangulation (broken neck cartilage).
In sixteenth century Europe, medical practitioners in army and university settings began to gather information on cause and manner of death. Ambrose Paré, a French army surgeon, systematically studied the effects of violent death on internal organs. Two Italian surgeons, Fortunato Fidelis and Paolo Zacchia, laid the foundation of modern pathology by studying changes which occurred in the structure of the body as the result of disease. In the late 1700's, writings on these topics began to appear. These included: "A Treatise on Forensic Medicine and Public Health" by the French physician Fodéré, and "The Complete System of Police Medicine" by the German medical expert Johann Peter Franck.
In 1775, Swedish chemist Karl Wilhelm Scheel devised a way of detecting arsenous oxide, simple arsenic, in corpses, although only in large quantities. This investigation was expanded, in 1806, by German chemist Valentin Ross, who learned to detect the poison in the walls of a victim's stomach, and by English chemist James Marsh, who used chemical processes to confirm arsenic as the cause of death in a 1836 murder trial.
Two early examples of English forensic science in individual legal proceedings demonstrate the increasing use of logic and procedure in criminal investigations. In 1784, in Lancaster, England, John Toms was tried and convicted for murdering Edward Culshaw with a pistol. When the dead body of Culshaw was examined, a pistol wad (crushed paper used to secure powder and balls in the muzzle) found in his head wound matched perfectly with a torn newspaper found in Toms' pocket. In Warwick, England, in 1816, a farm laborer was tried and convicted of the murder of a young maidservant. She had been drowned in a shallow pool and bore the marks of violent assault. The police found footprints and an impression from corduroy cloth with a sewn patch in the damp earth near the pool. There were also scattered grains of wheat and chaff. The breeches from a farm laborer threshing wheat nearby were examined and corresponded exactly to the impression in the earth near the pool.
As technology has improved, various specialties in forensics have developed. These include:
- Forensic evidence
- Forensic anthropology
- Forensic pathology
- Forensic odontology
- Forensic toxicology
- Canine forensics
- Forensic genetics
- Computer forensics
- Textile forensics
- Forensic entomology
- Forensic palynology
- Forensic engineering
- Forensic accounting
- Forensic psychiatry
- Questioned document examination
- Forensic palaeography — see diplomatics
Forensic science in the media
Sherlock Holmes, the fictional character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in works produced from 1887 to 1915, used forensic science as one of his investigating methods. Conan Doyle credited the inspiration for Holmes on his teacher at the medical school of Edinburgh University, the gifted surgeon and forensic detective Joseph Bell.
Decades later, the comic strip, Dick Tracy also featured a detective using a considerable number of forensic methods, although sometimes the methods were more fanciful than actually possible. The popular television series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is one of several crime detection series which depict a glamorized version of the activities of 21st Century forensic scientists.
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- Mobile laboratory for forensic investigation
- History of the finger-print system
- Baden, Michael, M.D, former New York City Medical Examiner, and Roach, Marion. "Dead Reckoning: The New Science of Catching Killers". Simon & Schuster, 2001. ISBN 0–684–86758–3.
- Kind, Stuart and Overman, Michael. "Science Against Crime". Doubleday and Company, Inc., New York, 1972. ISBN 0–385–09249–0.
- Nickell, Joe and Fischer, John F. "Crime Science: Methods of Forensic Detection". University Press of Kentucky, 1999. ISBN 0813120918.