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07 July 2017

The Science of Sherlock Holmes and the Ghosts of Conan Doyle

Estimated reading time Time 4 to read

Six days after the death of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who died of a heart attack on 7 July 1930, a mass séance was held at the Royal Albert Hall. Ten thousand people congregated in the London auditorium hoping to hear a message sent by the creator of Sherlock Holmes from beyond the grave. His wife, Lady Doyle, told Time magazine: “Although I have not spoken to Arthur since he passed, I am certain that in his own time and his own way he will send a message to us.” And according to some, that time would come in 1934, when in another session of spiritualism, whose recording is today preserved in the British Library, could be heard the words: “Take care of my boys and my good wife, Jean.”

But how is it possible that the literary father of the fictional detective who popularized the use of scientific empiricism could at the same time believe in ghosts? Doyle was a man with scientific roots, holding a medical degree from the university of his native Edinburgh. Already at that time he was moving forward on what would be the decisive trajectory of his life, when in 1879 he published his first study, a letter to the British Medical Journal. In the text he described how he had experimented on himself with increasing doses of a poison from the Gelsemium plant, also used to treat neuralgia, until he had to interrupt the treatment for fear of death.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Credit: Mortimer Menpes

Doyle practiced medicine as a naval surgeon and in his private practice. He travelled to Europe to specialize in ophthalmology and on his return opened a medical clinic in London, but did not end up seeing a single patient. Luckily for his readers, beginning in his university days he used his idle time to write fiction. In 1886, he managed to sell to a publishing house his novel A Study in Scarlet, in which he presented for the first time two new characters—the detective Sherlock Holmes and his assistant Doctor John Watson.

The success of the detective came to saturate its creator

Throughout his literary career, Doyle gave life to other characters that he serialized, like Professor Challenger or the Brigadier Gerard. But without any doubt, his greatest triumph was Sherlock Holmes, an immortal personage about whom he produced a total of four novels and 56 stories. The success of the detective came to saturate its creator, more interested in writing historical novels. In the story The Final Problem, Doyle decided to kill Holmes by throwing him over a waterfall with his archenemy, Professor Moriarty, but popular demand was such that he was forced to resurrect him.

Holmes, a character inspired by Doyle’s mentor at the University, Joseph Bell, was not the first reason-driven fictional detective; Edgar Allan Poe’s Chevalier Auguste Dupin might have been a previous influence. However, what engages the public in Holmes’ adventures was his skilful and extensive use of scientific forensic techniques that Doyle did not invent but were still brand-new. “Doyle was extremely well-read,” explains James O’Brien, author of The Scientific Sherlock Holmes, Oxford University Press, 2013. “He constantly uses ideas that he has come across in his reading. He wasn’t exactly the innovator, but he could see the power of the new emerging methods.”

Evening silhouette of Sherlock Holmes’s statue at Baker street, the real place where he never lived. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thus, according to what O’Brien explains to OpenMind, Holmes was three years ahead in the use of the idiosyncrasies of typewriters, he used the residue from gunshots five years before the first technical report on this method, and he commented on the use of fingerprints before Scotland Yard adopted it in 1902. In the latter case, adds O’Brien, Doyle had the vision to favour the fingerprint over another then rival method—the Bertillon system—based on various anthropometric measurements. “It took society 40 years to decide between these two methods for identifying people,” he says. But Doyle had it clear and he was right. “It is still with us today.”

Holmes influenced real-world detectives

Holmes also influenced real-world detectives. O’Brien names the Egyptian and Parisian police as examples of bodies that were possibly inspired by the character’s methods. According to what E.J. Wagner, author of The Science of Sherlock Holmes, latest edition in Fall River Press, 2017, points out to OpenMind, “Crime laboratories are expensive to form and maintain, and the public’s enthusiasm for Mr Holmes and his method, eventually made funding for such labs possible.” The writer adds that Edmond Locard, a pioneering French criminalist, “encouraged his students to read and learn from the Holmes stories.”

All of which does not seem to fit easily with a Doyle who held séances and who believed in mediums, clairvoyants and telepaths. The author himself said in an interview in 1927 that his interest in spiritualism came early in his life, around 1886, when he was beginning to shape Sherlock Holmes. “When I talk on this subject I’m not talking about what I believe, I’m not talking about what I think, I’m talking about what I know,” said Doyle with his pronounced Scottish accent.

Doyle was an ardent spiritualist who defended the legitimacy of mediums. Credit: Occult World/Flickr

However, it is true that from 1916 onwards he opted for a more vigorous approach to the subject: “Doyle got more and more heavily involved in spiritualism as he aged,” O’Brien says. His beliefs led him to get involved in bitter clashes with sceptics like the magician Harry Houdini. “Some have said he made a fool of himself,” adds the writer. It has been suggested that Doyle ended up resentful of the scientists and even wanted to take revenge on them by creating the famous Piltdown Man hoax, the alleged discovery of a human ancestor that turned out to be false. However, both O’Brien and Brian Pugh, a conservator from the Conan Doyle (Crowborough) Establishment, strongly deny this hypothesis. “I consider Doyle too much a man of honour to be involved in any scam, or for that matter to be resentful,” O’Brien concludes.

Perhaps it is not uncommon for anyone who has created such a lasting legend, to such an extent that Sherlock Holmes sometimes passes for a real person, to have become himself the object of legends. One of the most popular on the Internet is that in his first burial in his Crowborough garden, Doyle was buried in a vertical position. Pugh denies this to OpenMind: “No, he was not buried upright, this was some silly rumour.”

Javier Yanes


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