Finding Sherlock Holmes by Thomas Goetz

Joseph Bell is often credited with being the inspiration for the great detective, but is there more to the story? The Remedy by Thomas Goetz

The inspiration for Sherlock Holmes is routinely attributed to one singular influence: Joseph Bell, a professor of Arthur Conan Doyle’s when he studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh. The remarkable knack for detail, the synthesis of mundane characteristics into a profound insight, the ability to connect human experience with meThdical symptoms — all of these were indeed unique talents of Dr. Bell, who Conan Doyle acknowledged as his model for Mr. Holmes.

But overlooked in the homage to Joseph Bell are other attributes that we associate with Sherlock Holmes. In these more scientific behaviors, Conan Doyle was drawing not only on Bell but also upon the leading scientists of the day, foremost among them, Robert Koch. Koch was the great German scientist who discovered the bacteria that cause anthrax, tuberculosis, and many other infectious diseases — and his methods were perhaps even more important than his discoveries, because his protocols, rigor, and discipline allowed a new era of science to triumph.

It’s well known that Conan Doyle admired Koch’s research; the 1883 essay “Life and Death in the Blood” pays explicit homage to Koch’s revolutionary work in bacteriology. But it’s also worth looking at the Holmes stories themselves to reveal when the great detective might have been channeling the great scientist. Here are a few highlights from the canon where Conan Doyle may’ve been
thinking quite explicitly about Robert Koch.

A Study in Scarlet

This was the first Sherlock Holmes story — a full novel that was mildly received by the public upon publication in 1887 (though Conan Doyle wrote it at least a year earlier). Holmes makes his first appearance in the full triumph of a scientific discovery.

“I’ve found it! I’ve found it,” he shouted to my companion, running towards us with a test-tube in his hand. “I have found a reagent which is precipitated by haemogloblin, and by nothing else.” Had he discovered a gold mine, greater delight could not have shone upon his features . . . “It is the most practical medico-legal discovery for years, [he said] . . . Now I add this small quantity of blood to a litre of water.” . . . As he spoke, he threw into the vessel a few white crystals, and then added some drops of a transparent fluid. In an instant the contents assumed a dull mahogany colour, and a brownish dust was precipitated to the bottom of the glass jar.”

This is, in fact, one of the rare times that we find Sherlock actually performing what would be considered laboratory science — and it is decidedly the sort of test that a medical man would conceive of. Here Holmes is more than an acute observer of details or a synthesizer of clues. He is also, quite explicitly, a scientist himself, one who is adding to the corpus of discovery. In this first appearance, Holmes’ preferred tool isn’t that famous magnifying glass; it is the weapon of the true scientist, of the bacteriologist and the microbe hunter — the microscope.

The Sign of Four

This second Holmes adventure — published in 1890, the same year, it would turn out, Koch claimed to have his remedy for tuberculosis — was once again a full length novel. Though well reviewed, the book again failed to spark a mania for the master detective. Once again, Conan Doyle portrays Holmes as very much a serious scientist, one who has conducted thorough research and gone through the gauntlet of scientific publishing.

The first chapter makes this explicit, entitled “The Science of Deduction,” and Holmes describes his craft to Watson as a discipline as thorough and methodical as the bacteriological Postulates that Robert Koch crafted. “Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science, and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner,” he tells Watson. He soon launches in a description of the several monographs on various experiments that he has published, including “Upon the Distinction between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccos.” As he tells Watson, “In it I enumerate a hundred and forty forms of cigar, cigarette, and pipe tobacco, with coloured plates illustrating the difference in the ash.” It’s the sort of exhaustive thoroughness that Koch displayed in his identification of various bacteria, and speaks to how Conan Doyle admired the rigors of the new techniques that were revolutionizing scientific practice in his age.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: A Scandal in Bohemia

This was the first Sherlock Holmes short story and the first tale published in the Strand magazine. It was also the one that finally resonated with the public at large and changed Conan Doyle’s life forever. Here, Sherlock Holmes is very much in Joseph Bell mode, drawing remarkable insights from the slightest clues. But he also delivers what will become the mantra behind his method: a process that is very much rooted in the scientific process that was only just being inscribed by scientists in Europe, with Koch first among them. As Holmes puts it:

“I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts. But the note itself. What do you deduce from it?”

This principle is a concise summary of Koch’s own Postulates, which stipulated a point-by-point process for determining causality only after the proper evidence had been assembled. The irony is that though Koch was responsible more than any scientist of the day for demanding such rigors in research, the German scientist had failed to heed his own principles of data before conclusions, and leaped to conclusions before he’d made his proof.

His Last Bow: The Adventure of the Dying Detective

Though infectious diseases occur frequently in the Holmes stories (including a memorable appearance of tuberculosis in The Final Problem), it was this story that the plot was inextricably based on the germ theory – the theory that germs could cause disease, and the theory that Koch was responsible for establishing beyond a doubt. Though the story was published in 1913, it’s worth noting that the tale takes place in 1890, the year Koch announced his remedy — and the year that Conan Doyle would personally investigate whether Koch’s remedy would, in fact, cure consumption.

Scanning electron micrograph of Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria, which cause TB. Credit: NIAID

Instead of a common contagion like TB, this story revolves around the obscure (and fictitious) contagion known as “Tapanuli fever.” The story’s villain turns the laboratory techniques of bacteriology into murder weapon. Holmes, well aware of the power of infectious disease, cunningly escapes an infectious trap laid by the villain and catches the man. Once again, Holmes puts his own superior knowledge of science to work, and gets his man.

Thomas GoetzThomas Goetz is a noted science journalist and healthcare innovator.  His book, The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis, is available in stores now.



This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Bloggers Recommend.