Dead or alive, the vast majority of criminals are identified by facial appearance and fingerprints. But the Society of Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery has been shown cases where tinkering with bones and flesh has completely altered facial appearance. And smart wrongdoers like the late John Dillinger and Homer Van Meter may mutilate their fingertips with acid or otherwise until comparison with filed prints is highly difficult if not impossible. Dillinger and Van Meter did not succeed in preventing identification, but medical men agree that burning or surgery may obliterate the finger patterns entirely. Last week a bald, hulking criminologist named Carleton Simon expounded in great detail a method of identification which no criminal could circumvent without blinding himself. Dr. Simon would use the pattern of blood vessels in the circular backdrop of the eye. Almost infinitely various is this network in different people, and the chance that two persons might have the same pattern is as fantastically improbable as identical fingerprints. Age or disease may change the character of the eye veins and arteries, but not their position.
For six years (1920-26), Dr. Simon was a New York City deputy police commissioner. Later he had a laboratory on the Bowery for psychiatric examination of Manhattan's human flotsam. The eye-pattern idea was suggested to him by Dr. Isadore Goldstein, ophthalmologist of Mount Sinai Hospital, who in working out the system took care of the anatomical angle. Drs. Simon and Goldstein were joined by a small grey man named Allan Broms, an expert handler of charts and graphs.
The bright pink retina of the eye can be photographed straight through the pupil with a Zeiss retinal camera. As reference points for classification, veins are chosen in preference to arteries because they are thicker and show up darker in photographs. The main vein which enters the eyeball with the optic nerve branches in two, and each branch again forks, providing four prominent veins meandering across the retina in irregular directions.* The entrance point of the optic nerve itself is taken as a point of reference. The distances and directions of the vein forks from this reference point provide coordinates which can be hooked together in a serial number for classified filing and quick comparison.
*The blood, of course, actually flows down the forks toward the main vein and out of the eye-ball.