by guest blogger, David Zauner
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is most famous for his accounts of the cases of that great consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes of 221B, Baker Street, London, perhaps the best-known literary character in the world. However, Conan Doyle was also a trained physician and well versed in both detective fiction and real-life criminal cases. This background gave him a body of knowledge and experience that not only informed his writing and shaped Holmes as a detective quite different than his fictional predecessors, but also made him an advocate for improvements in investigative procedures and led him to conduct his own inquiries into a number of cases, including several in which he saw gross miscarriages of justice. On this 6th of January – recognized by many in the Sherlockian world as the birthday of Holmes – we delve deeper into Conan Doyle’s own story and how he not only changed detective fiction, but likely also had a significant impact on the development of modern investigative methods.
(Image: Sidney Paget illustration of Sherlock Holmes engaged in a chemical experiment in Arthur Conan Doyle's short story "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty.")
Edinburgh University, where Conan Doyle studied medicine from 1876 to 1881, had several notable figures in medical jurisprudence, as forensic medicine was then known, on the faculty or teaching in extramural schools loosely associated with the University. Sir Robert Christison taught materia medica and therapeutics during Conan Doyle’s time at the University, and had authored several standard texts on medical jurisprudence. His successor and former research assistant, Professor Thomas Fraser, taught one of Conan Doyle’s classes. Dr. Henry Littlejohn had a forensic medicine practice and was a popular extramural lecturer; one of his former students, Dr. Joseph Bell, had an uncanny ability to diagnose medical conditions simply by observing patients. Conan Doyle worked closely with Dr. Bell as outpatient clerk in the Royal Infirmary, and Dr. Bell is widely credited as the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes’ powers of observation.
Besides being a student of medicine, Conan Doyle was also a student of crime, reading the Newgate Calendars – accounts of notable crimes and trials from the 1770s – and the memoirs of Eugène Vidocq of the Paris Sûreté, plus the fictional tales of Edgar Allan Poe and Èmile Gaboriau. He corresponded with Francis Galton, one of the pioneers of fingerprint identification; knew about Alphonse Bertillon’s method of identification through the use of body measurements, known as anthropometry; and visited the London Metropolitan Police “Black Museum” to research police procedures. Conan Doyle was acquainted with Bernard Spilsbury, who became perhaps the most renowned forensic pathologist in Great Britain. Through his reading and contacts, Conan Doyle gained practical information on the methods and procedures of criminal investigation.
Although Conan Doyle started writing as a student, it was his Sherlock Holmes stories that made his literary mark. By creating a detective who used information gleaned from close observation and scientific analysis of minute clues to make deductions to solve his cases, Conan Doyle not only found the niche that gave him a lasting place on the list of great authors, he also seized the opportunity to use his writing ability to advocate for a systematic and scientific approach to criminal investigation, along the lines of that taken in the realm of medical diagnosis and jurisprudence with which he was so familiar. The cases of Sherlock Holmes, following his axiom that “detection is, or ought to be, an exact science and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner,” introduced the reading public to these possibilities as well, and started a fascination with crime detection and forensic science that continues to this day. Conan Doyle’s stories had an impact on professionals as well: Edmond Locard, a pioneer in forensic science who established the world’s first police laboratory in Lyon, France, in 1912 and wrote an encyclopedia of criminalistics still referenced today, acknowledged Holmes as one of his inspirations, and even referenced him in the introduction to one of his books. The official police were finally starting to catch up to the methods of Holmes.
As Sherlock Holmes grew in popularity, Conan Doyle became well known around the world, and with that fame came an increasing number of letters. Some were simply “fan mail”, but a number of others – addressed either to Holmes or to Conan Doyle himself – were pleas to look into cases that the authorities were unable to solve. At first, he simply dismissed these, but later he did look into several matters, applying the same methods of reason and rational deduction used by the character he created. Two of his inquiries stand out in particular; in both, Conan Doyle was able to exonerate individuals unjustly accused of serious crimes and convicted on flimsy evidence. George Edalji was convicted of horse-maiming in Staffordshire in 1903, and was suspected in a number of other animal mutilation cases, mainly due to a vicious campaign of anonymous letters against him and his family. Conan Doyle’s investigation revealed that the police case against Edalji was based on flawed – and perhaps fabricated – evidence, as well as rampant racial prejudice in the rural district; Edalji was the son of an Indian father and British mother. Conan Doyle’s work on Edalji’s behalf resulted in him being granted a full pardon. Oscar Slater was convicted of murdering a woman in Glasgow in 1908 and sentenced to life imprisonment, but Conan Doyle found inconsistencies in witness statements, unexplored leads, and evidence of judicial misconduct in the case. Slater was pardoned in 1927 and compensated by the British government for his unjust conviction and imprisonment. Conan Doyle took on a number of other cases in his lifetime; not all ended as successfully as these two, but he approached each in the manner of his Great Detective.
Arthur Conan Doyle, through his literary offspring Sherlock Holmes, offered a new approach to crime detection, one that used observation, science, and reason to solve cases and bring miscreants to justice. He sparked a lasting public interest in police procedures and forensic science, and served as an inspiration to some who were working to incorporate these principles into real-life police investigations. Conan Doyle himself embodied many of the same qualities and abilities he ascribed to Holmes, and deserves recognition for his exploits as a “consulting detective” as well as for his masterful storytelling.
Many biographies of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have been written, but two of the better ones (in this author’s humble opinion) are Andrew Lycett’s 2007 work, Conan Doyle: The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes; and Peter Costello’s 2006 account, Conan Doyle, Detective: True Crimes Investigated by the Creator of Sherlock Holmes.
David Zauner, the author of this “trifling monograph”, serves as a docent, collections assistant, and member of the board of the Indiana Medical History Museum. He is a retired forensic scientist, and a member of The Illustrious Clients of Indianapolis, a Sherlock Holmes literary society.