Juan (Josip) Vucetich was a Croatian-born Argentinean anthropologist and police official who pioneered the use of fingerprinting. In 1882, at the age of 24, he left his birthplace of Lesina and immigrated to Argentina. He was one of the front-runners of scientific dactyloscopy (identification by fingerprints).
Fingerprints were already used on clay tablets for business transactions in ancient Babylon and more recently in the fourteenth century for identification purposes. But in 1788 J. C. Mayers recognized that friction ridges are unique. Until 1890, however, the technology used for individualization was the anthropometric method designed by the French criminalist Alphonse Bertillon (1853–1914), based on the size of body, head, and limbs.
In the 1880s Argentine police considered it necessary to create a department that would take care of identifying individuals and commissioned doctor Augusto P. Drago to study the method established by the Bertillon. Subsequently, the Police of the City of Buenos Aires created a division dedicated to anthropometric identification. While Drago was establishing anthropometric identification in Buenos Aires, Vucetich was investigating fingerprints in the nearby La Plata Office of Identification and Statistics.
Inspired by an article from the French Revue Scientifique that reported on the English scientist Francis Galton's (1822–1911) experiments with fingerprints and their potential use in identification, Vucetich started to collect impressions of all ten fingers to include with the anthropometric measurements he took from arrested men. His intense study led him to confirm that fingerprints could be classified by groups. In 1891 Vucetich devised his own fingerprint classification method by means of impressions. He also invented the necessary elements to obtain the best possible quality of fingerprints and implemented every resource to systematize the method. It wasn't until 1894, however, that his superiors were convinced that anthropometry measurements were not necessary in addition to full sets of fingerprint records. By this time Vucetich had refined his classification system and was able to categorize a large number of fingerprint cards into small groups that were easily searched.
Vucetich's new recognition procedure of the classification system was originally called Icnofalangometría or Galtonean method and was later changed to dactiloscopy at the suggestion of another fingerprint pioneer, Francisco Latzina. It consisted of 101 types of fingerprints that Vucetich personally had classified based on Galton's incomplete taxonomy. On September 1, 1891, Vucetich's method began to be applied officially for the individualization of 23 felons, and in March 1892 Vucetich opened the first fingerprint bureau at San Nicholas, Buenos Aires.
Within a short time of the bureau being set up, the first conviction by means of fingerprint evidence in a murder trial was obtained. In June 1892 a colleague of Vucetich's, Inspector Eduardo Alvarez, took digital impressions from a crime scene at Necochea. Eventually, Vucetich was able to identify Francisca Rojas, who had murdered her two sons and cut her own throat in an attempt to blame a neighboring ranch worker. Rojas's bloody print was left on a door post of her hut, taken to the fingerprint bureau for comparison with the inked fingerprint impressions of the ranch worker, and eventually proved Rojas's identity as the murderer.
The insight obtained by the police department through Vucetich's simple and efficient fingerprinting identification method encouraged the government to widen the filiations procedure and in 1900 the first identification cards were issued. Argentinean police adopted Vucetich's method of fingerprinting classification and it was widely spread to police forces all over the world for being scientifically efficient and superior to the existing methods.
Vucetich published all his methods, theories, and findings, which eventually were translated in the book General Instructions for the Anthropometric System and Digital Impressions. His work Dactiloscopía Comparada (Comparative Dactyloscopy) came out in 1904 and is considered to be his masterpiece, which led him to receive awards and honors from around the world.
Juan Vucetich created the most flawless system of fingerprint classification and is credited as being the first person to use a latent fingerprint to solve a crime. His work and perseverance went beyond his commitment. He made investigational trips to India and China trying to find out the origins of identification by fingerprints, and he attended scientific congresses and published numerous books based on his findings.
While Juan Vucetich's system is still used in most Spanish countries, William Henry's system of fingerprint classification, which was officially adopted by Scotland Yard as their identification system in 1901, continues to be in use in the United States and in Europe. A majority of the identification bureaus around the world use either the Vucetich or the Henry classification system. International organizations such as Interpol now use both methods.
Juan Vucetich died in the city of Dolores, province of Buenos Aires. He donated his files and his library to the Faculty of Judicial and Social Sciences of the National University of La Plata, which served to create the museum that bears his name. In the honor of Vucetic, La Plata Police Academy has been named "Escuela de policia Juan Vucetic."
see also Anthropology; Anthropometry; Fingerprint; Interpol.