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Source:  Dayle L. Hinman, BS

Our Future Reflects Our Past: The Evolution of Forensic Science

Many people spend their careers immersed in the day-to day-activities and challenges of their chosen profession.  Special indeed are those individuals who have the ability to share effectively their knowledge and abilities to better the wider professional community.  Remarkable is the person who can take an idea and actually put it into action.  Dr. Rutherford B. Hayes Gradwohl realized that there should be opportunities for professionals to mutually explore multidisciplinary forensic science matters.  After a year of planning and contributing his personal resources to support conference administrative costs, Dr. Gradwohl’s vision became a reality.  The first American Medicolegal Congress was held in St. Louis, MO, from January 19-21, 1948.  In his opening remarks, Dr. Gradwohl stated, “To the end of coordination of all agencies and efforts, I wish to recommend to this group the formation of a central organization of a permanent nature, to meet annually.  Its aims and purposes will be to become a clearinghouse for new ideas and developments, to support reforms in legislatures and courts, to study and recommend new methods of jurisprudence.”1  The first meeting was a resounding success with 150 forensic scientists and other interested individuals in attendance for the three-day meeting.  A total of 29 papers covering a wide spectrum of topics were presented.  Seizing on the interest and enthusiasm of the assembly, a committee was formed to seek the views of scientists, lawyers, and jurists as to the need and characteristics of a national medico-legal society.  These efforts resulted in the creation of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

President John Gerns’s theme for the 2017 Annual Scientific Meeting, Our Future Reflects Our Past: The Evolution of Forensic Science, has a special relevance to me as a Fellow in the General Section.  The AAFS has evolved from the original seven sections to the current total of 11.  Ten of the sections are comprised of individuals with credentials specified by their section. The General Section includes a current total of 16 separate disciplines.  With 775 members, we are the third largest section in the AAFS.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”  During my career as a law enforcement officer and consultant, I learned from studying the successes as well as failures in the investigative process.  Our collective knowledge is where our success is born, strengthens, and flourishes.  My own achievements are, in no small part, a robust association and collaboration with members of the Academy.

Fresh from a degree in Criminology from Florida State University in 1974, I believed I had an excellent understanding of how to be a police officer.  I soon realized that life “on the street” was very different from an academic setting. My own experience taught me to value both science as well as empathy with victims of crime.

I came to understand that investigative efficacy intersected with thoughtful interview, interrogation techniques, and patience in examining all possibilities.  Looking back over my career, I find it hard to imagine that we solved crimes before the possibilities brought by the Automated Fingerprint Indexing System (AFIS), fax machine, cellular telephones, DNA, and computers.

Euphemisms such as “Don’t try to reinvent the wheel” and “That’s how we have always done it” do not lead to positive change.  Our experience suggests that it’s easier to recognize something we have seen before.  The introduction of science has changed us from “I have a hunch” to “I have proof.” Unfortunately, the volume of social media bombarding our society has impacted how the public views forensics.  The “CSI effect” is real in the public’s perception. Media is contributing to the notion that science is intertwined with magic.  Not every crime is caught on camera.  Skeletal remains in and of themselves do not solve the crime.  Analysts must match DNA from a crime to a suspect.

To further evolve forensic science within the criminal investigative community, I believe we must nurture the next generation of scientists who will ultimately replace us.  We should all endeavor to be more like Dr. Gradwohl, encouraging all to get involved.


1 1History of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, Kenneth S. Field