Forensic Science

A Sherlockian Perspective

Sherlock Holmes was the world’s first and foremost forensic scientist. The statement may sound strange given that the person in question was a figment of the mind. So, the true credit actually goes to his creator, the literary genius, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In Conan Doyle's opinion, science set Holmes apart from other detectives who usually relied on chance to solve crimes.

The books of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are a bundle of scientific information till date. In fact, the Chemical Adventures of Sherlock Holmes are often used as supplement to classroom studies in chemistry. Examples are "Sherlock Holmes and the Yellow Prisms" which provides a problem in organic and inorganic qualitative analysis while "Mrs. Hudson's Golden Brooch" which emphasizes qualitative analysis, metallurgy, and gravimetric analysis.

Many of the advances in forensic science were done in reference to stories of Sherlock Holmes. For example, “The Sign of Four” talked about using fingerprint evidence. Interestingly this book was written in 1890 when two techniques of identification were being used; the second being bertillonage (also called anthropometry). This was the system of identification by measuring twelve characteristics of the body. The two methods competed for forensic ascendancy for many years. The astute Conan Doyle picked the eventual winner.

Another such incredible example is “Study in Scarlet”, in which the detective expounds upon the importance of the "Sherlock Holmes Test for Blood" as the "most practical medico-legal discovery for years." He talks about a reagent that is precipitated by hemoglobin and nothing else. This is in fact in reference to guaiacum (a resin isolated from trees) in combination with hydrogen peroxide. If a stain turned blue when treated with these reagents, it was considered a positive result indicative of blood. It was not until 1893, a full seven years after the publication of Study in Scarlet and 12 years after Sherlock Holmes formulated his famous test for blood that the very first book published on this subject appeared. Sherlock Holmes’ test for blood thus gave impetus to development of more improved techniques of blood identification.

In the one case involving a typewriter, “A Case of Identity” (1891), only Holmes realized the importance of the fact that all the letters received by Mary Sutherland from Hosmer Angel were typewritten. Holmes figures out the idiosyncrasies of the typewriter by just analyzing a typewritten note. In the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) started a Document Section soon after its crime lab opened in 1932 (forty years later).

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Holmes was seen to analyze footprints on quite a variety of surfaces: clay soil, snow, carpet, dust, mud, blood, ashes, and even a curtain. The footprint analysis was almost entirely responsible for solving the case (Boscombe Valley Mystery). These techniques of deduction might have existed but Holmes was the one who formalized experiments and observations into a scientific discipline.

The TV Show, Sherlock BBC, keeps up to this chemist genius created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In the adventure of Green Ladder (not revealed on the show), Sherlock relies on the traces of green paint in the gravel to solve the case.

Clearly, Sherlock Holmes was a man ahead of his time. What seemed peculiar then is very common and widely used now. Basic science departments in medical schools provide professional education for future physicians, supply academic graduate and postdoctoral training to research scientists.

The innovative academic program that the world’s only consulting detective created for himself in the Victorian era is not unlike that received by scientists in toxicology and forensic science. But, Sherlock Holmes was the first one to do so.

Sherlocked, aren’t you?


-SHERLOCK HOLMES: The Education of the World's First Forensic Scientist. The Hounds Collection Vol. 10, May 2005, p 66-72

-The Scientific Method of Sherlock Holmes by James F. O’Brien.


-The Chemical Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Volume vi, Issue 1 March 8, 2011, ACS Publications

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