It's one of the biggest mysteries of all time: who really did invent fingerprinting? The answer, as Allan Laing discovers, lies close to home, with a dour Ayrshire doctor

IF you look up the subject of fingerprinting in any self-respecting encyclopedia you will find two prominent names. One is the distinguished nineteenth-century scientist, Sir Francis Galton, generally regarded as the father of the science, and the other is William Herschel, a British colonial civil servant reputed to have been the first man to use prints as a method

of identification.

One name you probably won't find is Henry Faulds, a dour Ayrshire-born doctor who spent much of his life serving as a missionary in Japan. Yet Faulds has as much claim to inventing the process which revolutionised crime detection as either Galton or Herschel.

According to a controversial new book on the history of fingerprinting, by American science writer Colin Beavan, the reason why the Scottish physician signally failed to gain the recognition he deserved was simply sheer snobbery on the part of the British establishment.

Galton was the cousin of the illustrious Charles Darwin and Herschel the grandson of William Herschel, the eminent astronomer who discovered the planet Uranus. Faulds, however, came from altogether different stock. Born in Beith in 1843, his once-wealthy family was left almost penniless with the spectacular collapse of the Western Bank in Glasgow, in which Faulds's father had invested all his money. The young Henry had to leave school to find work, first in a cotton, tea, and coffee business, and then with a clothing manufacturer. Eventually his father scraped together enough money to send him to Glasgow University, where he studied medicine.

When it came to the crunch, in nineteenth-century Britain's notoriously class-conscious society, it was Walton and Herschel who earned the kudos and gained the fame. Faulds, barely a footnote in history, was all but forgotten.

Beavan's book, Fingerprints -

Murder and the Race to Uncover the Science of Identity, attempts to redress the balance and finally give Faulds the credit he deserves.

The author says: ''Galton was the kingmaker. He was an elitist and a snob and he chose to back the work of Herschel rather than that of a poor Scottish doctor. In a way, Faulds was born into the wrong class. If he had been part of the English establishment, then things might well have been different for him.''

Faulds's great-nephew, retired Edinburgh doctor Robin Stewart, who, at 75, continues to champion his cause, says: ''There is no doubt that Henry Faulds's place in history has not been recognised. He was the first person to publish in a reputable scientific journal evidence about the use of fingerprinting in forensic science. He should be up there with all the great Scottish innovators, such as Lord Kelvin. And I'm trying to do my bit for uncle Henry.''

So how did Faulds, the irascible and occasionally cantankerous Scots doctor, become involved in such a significant scientific discovery? Well, as both a devout Christian and a modern scientist, he was fascinated by Charles Darwin's (then recently-published) theory on the origin of species. At the time, academics were scouring the world for evidence of man's evolution. One such academic was the American archaeologist, Edward S Morse, who was excavating an ancient site at Omari, six miles outside Tokyo.

Intrigued by the work, Henry Faulds, who was running a small hospital and missionary station in the area, befriended Morse and often tagged along with him to the dig. One day, while sifting through some 2000-year-old pottery fragments, the doctor noticed minute patterns of parallel lines impressed in the clay.

For some reason he cast his mind back to a couple of months earlier, when he had been preparing a lecture to his medical students on the five

senses. He recalled that, while thinking about the sense of touch, he had looked at his own hands and noticed the swirling ridges on his own fingertips.

Now, looking at those tell-tale signs on the fragments, he realised that they were made by the fingers of ancient potters. And the more fragments he inspected the more convinced he became that each finger-ridge pattern might be unique to each individual.

So he began to study the fingerprints of his friends, his family, his students. At first he recorded them by making sketches, then he moved on to making wax impressions, and finally he hit upon the technique of inking the fingertips and making an impression of them on paper.

Faulds's collection of fingerprints soon swelled to the thousands. In an effort to expand his research even further, he wrote hundreds of letters to scientists all over the world asking for their help in collecting fingerprint samples. Sadly, his obsession failed to excite the people he wrote to. He received almost no response and his fingerprint study came to an abrupt halt.

It wasn't until a few months later that Faulds realised just how important his discovery was

in terms of forensic science. When his hospital was burgled, the local police arrested a member of staff. Convinced of his innocence, Faulds lifted a set of sooty fingerprints from the locus of the crime. Discovering that they didn't match the accused, he showed his evidence to the police who, in turn, released the suspect.

Within a short time, the doctor convinced himself that fingerprints could solve, in one fell swoop, the problem of identification that so troubled the British legal system. That was the easy part. The difficult part was convincing the establishment.

To this end, he attempted to enlist the help of his scientific hero, Charles Darwin. In February 1880 he wrote

to him, explained his research, and asked him to drop a word or two in the right ears.

Darwin, by then too old to help himself, passed the information on to his cousin, the esteemed scientist, Francis Galton, who in turn promised to do what he could to help Faulds.

And this is the point in the story where it gets a little murky. Galton didn't keep his promise; Faulds never heard from him.

Instead, Galton latched on to the work of William Herschel. Unbeknown to Faulds, Herschel had a year earlier introduced fingerprints' official use in Hooghly, India. The difference was that the colonial administrator had only introduced them as a form of

signature to authenticate documents. At the time it never occurred to

him that they could be used for

anything else.

So it was Faulds and Faulds alone who took the concept much further. He advocated their use as a means of systematically identifying criminals.

According to Beavan, the young Scot made one crucial mistake: he didn't refine his work

and research sufficiently. ''What hap- pened was that

when Faulds returned to Britain from Japan he had a great deal of problems. His wife was unwell, he had a hard time finding another job, and then his father died,'' he explains. In other words, he took his eye off the ball.

In 1888 he made repeated attempts to get Scotland Yard interested in his work - but he was more or less dismissed as an eccentric. Meanwhile, Galton and Herschel had combined forces to effectively stitch up Faulds and promote themselves as fingerprinting's pioneers. By their own version of events, Herschel would be the system's inventor and Galton its developer.

The Scot was left out in the cold and, until the day he died, Galton never once extended him the courtesy of a mention in dispatches.

Faulds, convinced that his precious ideas had been stolen, was eventually forced to admit defeat and, short of money, he moved with his family to Fenton in Staffordshire where he took over the practice of a ''club doctor'' tending to the poor in return for penny-a-week subscriptions.

He was a bitter man. A couple of high-society chums, Galton and Herschel had completely erased his prints from the research. For the ensuing 25 years he campaigned for recognition, at one point even challenging his two arch rivals to a bare-fisted fight over their honour as gentlemen.

Even after Galton died in 1911, Faulds continued his war of words with Herschel. Into their 70s and 80s, the two old men scrapped, as Beavan puts it, ''like stingy schoolboys in a sandbox''. Then, in an October night in 1917, Herschel succumbed to a seizure. His daughter found him the next morning, slumped over his desk.

The feud was over. The

aged Faulds continued, however, to seek some

public acknowledgment of his work. In the 1920s,

having gone deaf, he was forced to close his medical practice. By now such was his impecunious position that even the roof over his head was in danger of collapse. But not once had he asked the police or the government for payment. All he wanted - all he ever wanted - was recognition.

On March 19, 1930, he died at the age of 86. A forgotten man? Well, almost. His great-nephew, Robin Stewart, is quick to point out the irony in the fact that the only monument to Henry Faulds stands in Japan. Indeed, he says that the presence of the British ambassador to Japan at the monument's unveiling amounts to the only official acceptance of his contribution by the

UK government.

Back home, however, what little recognition Faulds has received since his death is due largely to the efforts of just three people; one a Scots sheriff and the other two Americans.

In 1987 two US fingerprint examiners, researching the history of their trade, stumbled upon the old man's grave, unkempt and overgrown in

a church cemetery at Wolstanton, Stoke-on-Trent.

The Americans had been inspired to search for the grave after reading a book, Fingerprints: History, Law, and Romance by George Wilton, first published in 1938. In it Wilton, a renowned Lanarkshire sheriff, championed Faulds's posthumous case for a place in history. He continued the fight beyond the pages of his book and eventually won for Faulds's two poverty-stricken daughters two government payments, made on the condition of secrecy.

Today the Fingerprint Society, the professional body in the UK, pays for the yearly upkeep of Faulds's grave. There's a new stone. Upon it are the words: ''In memory of Henry Faulds in recognition of his work as a pioneer in the science of fingerprint identification.''

In addition, according to Robin Stewart, the local historical society in Beith is attempting to have a street named after his great-uncle. There is even talk of a museum, dedicated to their famously forgotten son, being created. More than 70 years after his death, Henry Faulds may at last be given his rightful place.

Fingerprints - Murder and the Race to Uncover the Science of Identity by Colin Beavan is published this week by Fourth Estate, price (pounds) 14.99.