Lombroso, the father of Criminology

Born in 1835 in Verona, Italy, Cesare Lombroso was an influential Italian physician whose studies ranged from brain pathology to forensic science. However, it was his revolutionary work “The Criminal Man” (“L’Uomo delinquente”), published in 1876, that left an indelible mark on criminology. Lombroso introduced a provocative idea: criminality could be inherited and criminals identified by particular physical characteristics.

Lombroso proposed that certain individuals display atavistic traits, i.e. primitive or ancestral physical characteristics that predispose them to criminality. This concept, derived from the Latin term “avatus” (ancestor), suggests that these individuals represent a distinct and more primitive biological form of humanity. According to Lombroso, these regressive evolutionary characteristics make criminals more prone to antisocial behaviour.

Lombroso and the Positivist School

Cesare Lombroso, often considered the father of modern criminology, was a central figure in the development of the Positivist School of criminology. This school of thought marked a radical shift from classical theories of crime, which emphasised free will and the rationality of human behaviour, to a more deterministic approach that considered biology and pathology as fundamental factors in criminal behaviour.
The Positivist School, which emerged in the 19th century, is based on the application of the scientific method to understand human behaviour, particularly criminal behaviour. Positivists believed that science is capable of revealing the real causes of criminal behaviour and therefore promoted the study of biological, psychological and social factors that might influence criminal behaviour.

Key Principles of the Positivist School

  • Determinism: Contrary to the idea of free will, determinism holds that criminal behaviour is caused by factors outside the control of the individual, such as genetic abnormalities, psychological disorders, or environmental influences.
  • Objectivity: Objective observation and measurement should be the basis of criminological study, using scientific techniques and methods to collect and analyse data.
  • Naturalism: Criminal behaviour should be studied like any other natural phenomenon, subject to natural laws and therefore predictable and controllable through scientific study.

Lombroso and the Born Offender Theory

Lombroso introduced the concept of the “born criminal”, a person who is biologically predisposed to commit crimes due to certain physical and mental characteristics. According to Lombroso, these individuals could be identified by atavistic physical traits, which he considered signs of arrested or regressive evolution. These include:

  • Cranial anomalies
  • Facial asymmetries
  • Irregularly sized ears
  • Exceptionally long arms
  • Other peculiar physical characteristics

Lombroso conducted extensive studies in Italian prisons to document and analyse these characteristics, concluding that born criminals represent a step backwards in human evolution towards more primitive forms of life.

Physical Characteristics of Criminals According to Lombroso

  • Thieves: Expressive face, manual dexterity, small, averted eyes.
  • Murderers: Cold, glazed look, bloodshot eyes, prominent nose.
  • Sex offenders: Thick lips, prominent ears.
  • Female offenders: Short stature, pronounced wrinkles, dark hair and small skull.

Impact and Legacy

Lombroso’s approach, although controversial and criticised for its biological determinism, significantly influenced the development of criminology. His work prompted the adoption of more scientific methods in the study of crime and laid the groundwork for future research that would integrate multidisciplinary approaches to understanding crime.

Policy Influence: Lombroso’s ideas influenced the penal and reformatory policies of his time, promoting more scientific and humane approaches to the treatment of offenders.
Evolution of Criminological Thought: Despite criticism, Lombroso’s perspective opened the way for future criminologists to explore the interaction of biological, psychological and environmental factors in criminal behaviour.


Although Lombroso’s theories of specific physical characteristics as indicators of criminality have been superseded by more modern approaches that consider a variety of biological and social factors, his legacy remains fundamental to understanding the history and development of criminology.

Cesare Lombroso not only marked an era, but also challenged preconceived notions of free will and culpability, decisively influencing criminological thinking and opening new avenues for understanding the human mind in relation to law and society.

Margit. (2019, diciembre 10). Cesare Lombroso, crime, and atavism – criminology web. Criminologyweb.Com. https://criminologyweb.com/cesare-lombroso-theory-of-crime-criminal-man-and-atavism/
Brookes, E. (2021, julio 20). Cesare lombroso: Theory of crime, criminal man, and atavism. Simplypsychology.org. https://www.simplypsychology.org/lombroso-theory-of-crime-criminal-man-and-atavism.html
Fedorek, B. (2019). SOU-CCJ230 introduction to the American criminal justice system. https://openoregon.pressbooks.pub/ccj230/chapter/4-7-biological-and-psychological-positivism/