The Science of Sherlock Holmes. from Baskerville Hall to the Valley of Fear, the Real Forensics Behind the Great Detective's Greatest Cases

By Greenfield, Daniel P. Md, Mph, Ms | Journal of Psychiatry & Law, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

The Science of Sherlock Holmes. from Baskerville Hall to the Valley of Fear, the Real Forensics Behind the Great Detective's Greatest Cases


Greenfield, Daniel P. Md, Mph, Ms, Journal of Psychiatry & Law


The Science of Sherlock Holmes. From Baskerville Hall to the Valley of Fear, the Real Forensics Behind the Great Detective's Greatest Cases, by E.J. Wagner, (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2006), 256 pp., $24.95.

". . . When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth . . ."

-Sherlock Holmes speaking in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's, The Sign of Four

". . . The games' s afoot . . ."

-Sherlock Holmes, innumerable times

". . . The foot's a game . . ."

-Anonymous Podiatrist, ca. 2003

In an Editorial in an earlier issue of this Journal (Greenfield, 2006), I encouraged readers to recommend and review books outside the usual range of those received by this Journal. Novels, historical works, short story anthologies, essays, collected letters, and many others come to mind.

Among these other types of works is a hybrid, of sorts, which I recently read, entitled The Science of Sherlock Holmes, by E.J. Wagner (Wagner, 2006).

Now, Sherlock Holmes, of course, is a fictitious character and a great favorite of a number of readers of this Journal, myself included. But the forensic science the "Great Detective" (Moss, 2007) used to solve the mysteries he did with the uncanny success he had was real, à la late nineteenth and early twentieth century England and Europe. The reader of this Journal who is interested in the history of science-forensic science, in this case-as well as in Sherlock Holmes-will find this book both informative and entertaining.

The science of Holmes' Victorian Age was teeming with new activity and discoveries in the physical (Davy, Faraday, Lord Kelvin) and biological (Darwin, Huxley, Wallace) sciences. Early applications of another Victorian science, "Medical Jurisprudence"-which forensic science was called at the time-included such investigation practices as toxicologic analyses (Chapter 4: Proving Poison), soil analyses (Chapter 10: The Real Dirt), and fingerprinting (Chapter 7: A Picture of Guilt) are presented in this volume. This well organized and readable book gives a historical overview of criminal forensic science principles and techniques of that era interspersed with fictitious examples of that real science from the "Canon" (Moss, 2007) of Sherlock Holmes stories (Doyle, various copyrights). As such, The Science of Sherlock Holmes may be considered in part an introductory textbook of late nineteenth and early twentieth century forensic science akin to Safrstein's contemporary works (Safrstein, 1990).

For readers of this particular Journal, what about "Psychiatry," or forensic mental health issues?

In a previous issue of this Journal, Dr. Kenneth Weiss discussed phrenology in the context of the work and contributions to the field of Dr. Isaac Ray, an important figure in forensic psychiatry in the U.S. (Weiss, 2007). The publication of that article suggests that at least some of our readers are interested in phrenology.

In this book, The Science of Sherlock Holmes, the history of phrenology is introduced ("Invented by the Viennese anatomist Franz Joseph Gall in the late eighteenth century, the system was based on the belief that both intellectual ability and moral character are innate and can be observed in the shape of the skull . . ." [page 191]) and discussed in further detail. Phrenology is applied in several Holmes stories: For example, in "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," Holmes states that "It is a question of cubic capacity, a man with so large a brain must have something in it." Similarly, in The Hound of the Baskervilles, Dr. …

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