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Fingerprint folklore – how the Wests were won?

(Disclosure: I work in the biometrics industry. Needless to say, these are not necessarily the views of my employer.)

There are cases in which the historic significance of a moment cannot be discerned for years or decades after the event, and there are other cases in which the historic significant of a moment is immediately known.

Take the story of William West and Will West. If you’ve ever been involved in fingerprint identification, you’re familiar with the story, which discusses how the previous Bertillon method of biometric analysis was replaced with fingerprint identification. Here’s how GlobalSecurity.org told the story in 2011:

Bertillons system of identification was not without fault. For example, it relied heavily on precise measurements for identification purposes, and yet two people working on measurements for the same person would record different findings. The measurements taken were also only thought to be unique and accurate in adulthood. Therefore, someone who committed a crime prior to adulthood would not have their measurements on record. Additionally, it turned out to be the case that the features by which Bertillon based his identification system were not unique to any one individual. This led to the possibility of one person being convicted of another persons crimes. This possibility became abundantly clear in 1903 when a Will West was confused with a William West. Though it would later turn out to be the case that the two were identical twins, the issues posed by the Bertillonage system of identification were clear.

Or were they?

In 1987, Robert D. Olsen, Sr. of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation looked back at this moment, and the literature surrounding the moment. In his analysis, he discovered some things:

A search of the literature on fingerprint identification reveals that the alleged Will and William West case was not reported in print until Wilder and Wentworth’s account in 1918 (26). Please note that of the twenty–six books and articles listed in the bibliography, eighteen were published prior to the release of Wilder and Wentworth’s book and none of the eighteen mention the West case. Of particular note is that two of the items listed in the bibliography (14,15) were by the records clerk who took the Bertillon measurements and the fingerprints of Will and William West, but who never mentions the incident. One is immediately struck with the thought that a pioneer in the establishment of fingerprint identification never attached much significance to a case in which he played a very important role. Perhaps the case was not as important as we have been led to believe?

Please go here to read the remainder of Olsen’s article.

The CLPEX message board includes a thread on the entire affair. Toward the end of the thread, Gerald Clough wrote some musings regarding how the traditional story – the tale that the Will/William West case dealt an immediate blow to the Bertillon system – became so prevalent:

Well, we don’t have a whole lot of folklore in this field, and any significant activity can use (if not needs) some folklore. And you can’t keep a good story down. Historians strive for detailed and documented accuracy, and in the process usually strip an account of interest to any but other historians who, when the facts are nailed down, promptly lose interest in a problem already solved and an event that doesn’t mean much. But the stories that endure are those that distill broader truths and condense the experience of a time into a vivid and unforgettable tale.

Now most people won’t care whether fingerprints were generally accepted in 1903 or 1905 or 1918. But there are some that do. And there are some people such as Simon Cole, not revered within the fingerprint community (I’ve talked about Cole before), who believe that history may be repeating itself:

If this is indeed the beginning of the end of fingerprinting, history will be repeating itself. A century ago, fingerprinting was the upstart rival of the world’s dominant method of criminal identification: the Bertillon system, which used 11 bodily measurements, facial features, birthmarks, scars and tattoos to pinpoint individual identities. The transition to fingerprinting was treated as proof that the world was growing more rational, more discerning. But there may well come a time when our own genetically enhanced descendants find our belief in the power of fingerprinting as quaint as we find the Bertillon system.

And what is the new replacement for Bertillon’s system and the fingerprint system?

As it happens, a new metaphor has arisen just in time to fill the breach. These days we are increasingly apt to believe that our individuality is vouched for by the unique arrangement of genetic material in our cells. And DNA can now do nearly everything that fingerprinting does. Forensic scientists can recover identifiable DNA samples from ever-smaller traces of biological material, even the stray cells left by the smudge of a finger. Forensic DNA profiling, which has notably shed the early nickname of “DNA fingerprinting,” is a perfect match for high-tech millennial sensibilities. Old-style fingerprinting, with its reliance on human observation and its correspondence to a romantic notion of our place in the universe looks . . . well, just so last century.

Does anyone care to hazard a guess regarding what people will think of DNA one hundred years from now? Or fifty years from now?

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