Henry Faulds (1843 – 1930), doctor, missionary and fingerprint pioneer from Beith.

On the 8th of June 1843, Henry Faulds – doctor, missionary and fingerprint pioneer– was born in New Street, Beith. His parents William Pollock Faulds and Anne Cameron owned a warehouse and were quite well-off before losing most of their money in the 1855 Western Bank collapse.  

When Henry was 12 he was removed from school and sent to work in his uncle Thomas Corbett’s office before becoming an apprentice to the shawl manufacturers R.T.&J Rowatt. When he was 21 Henry, aware of his short time in education, enrolled in Glasgow University. There he studied maths, logic and classics before deciding to study medicine at Anderson’s College. At this time Joseph Lister, the famous surgeon and pioneer of antiseptic surgery, was working and teaching in Glasgow and Henry would become aware of the importance of antisepsis. In 1871 he gained a physician’s licence and became a medical missionary for the Church of Scotland before being sent to Darjeeling, India to work in a hospital for the poor for 2 years. 

In July 1873 the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland appointed Henry to establish a medical mission in Japan. He married Isabella Wilson in September that year and they departed for Japan in the December. Henry became the surgeon superintendent of Tsukiji Hospital in Tokyo and helped introduce Lister’s methods re antiseptic to Japanese surgeons.  Whilst in Japan Henry also helped found Japan’s first society for the blind, set up lifeguard stations in nearby canals, halted a rabies epidemic and helped stop the spread of cholera. He was by now fluent in Japanese and was becoming a prolific writer. He wrote 2 books about travel in the Far East, academic articles and started magazines. 

It was in the late 1870s, when on an archaeological dig with his American friend the archaeologist Edward Sylvester Morse, that Henry observed the impressions left by potters on ancient clay fragments. He began to examine his own fingertips and was convinced that each pattern and ridge was unique to each person. When some surgical alcohol was stolen in his hospital, Henry was able to use fingerprints to prove the innocence of a trusted colleague who had been accused of the crime. In October 1880 a letter by Faulds – “On the Skin-furrows of the Hand” was published in the science journal “Nature”. Here Henry observed …”when bloody finger-marks or impressions on clay, glass, &c., exist, they may lead to the scientific identification of criminals.” A month after this article Sir William Herschel (grandson of the astronomer who discovered the planet Uranus) claimed in the same journal that he had been using fingerprint identification since 1857 whilst working in India as a civil servant. This claim would lead to a “battle of words” between the two until 1917 when Herschel published in “Nature” giving credit to Henry for the discovery. 

Henry wrote to Charles Darwin about his findings and Darwin forwarded his letter on to his cousin Francis Galton (the man who coined the term “Eugenics”) who then forwarded it on to the Royal Anthropological Society who apparently were not interested.  Faulds returned to Britain in 1886 due to his wife’s ill health, offering his findings re fingerprinting to Scotland Yard but they were dismissive of him. He spent the rest of his years working as a police surgeon in Staffordshire and died in Newcastle Under-Lyme on 24th March 1930 aged 86, sad at the lack of recognition for his work.  

He is however recognised today for his work. He is revered in Japan and there’s a memorial to him where he lived in Tsukiji. In 2004 a memorial to him was unveiled in Beith with many attendees including his great nephew, a top fingerprint expert from the USA and a former Detective Chief Inspector in the National Police Agency in Japan. There have been a great many articles, papers and books written about this fascinating and pioneering man whose legacy lives on. 

Further Reading

Henry Faulds at the University of Strathclyde