Tuesday, August 07, 2007


I will probably return again and again to E.J.Wagner's The Science of Sherlock Holmes as a source of inspiration, simply because of all the information it packs into a mere 244 pages.

A comprehensive sixteen page bibliography reveals the staggering amount of research that went into the book. The thirteen chapters cover everything from the beginnings of forensic pathology to ballistics, and from the examination of the crime scene to medical myths.

We learn about the 1569 Casket Letters which influenced the fate of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots when she had become a political refugee in her cousin Elizabeth's England. We also learn how the installation on communication cords on trains was precipitated by the murder of Thomas Briggs by Franz Muller in 1864. Muller was convicted after evidence by Dr Henry Letheby on the blood stains found in the train carriage.

"I used a microscope and also chemical tests to determine the character of the stains."

The cases discussed vary from Lizzie Borden and Jack the Ripper to the tragic wrongful conviction of Sally Clark. In this case a well respected paediatrician informed a jury that the chance of a repeated cot [crib ] death was one in seventy three million. The conviction was overturned when statisticians came forward to rebut the incorrect figure, and give the correct figure as one in seventy seven, but a life had been ruined.

"It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence." Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet.

The character of Holmes was based on Dr Joseph Bell, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh Medical School. Bell relied on close observation of the patient and Conan Doyle who first met Bell in 1876, was enormously impressed by his deductive powers, and clearly by his habit of saying, "It was elementary."

Perhaps all medical schools have a Joseph Bell because during the 1960s in Bristol we were told the story of our distinguished professor of Dental Medicine, who after the entire medical staff of the hospital were stumped with a difficult patient diagnosis wandered into the room and announced "Diabetes".

He had apparently smelt acetone on the patient's breath.


Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Was that distinguished professor a real person or a fictional character? If not the latter, he should have been.

With their faith that the science of their time is ultimate and infalible, perhaps today's ballyhooed American TV series are nothing but Sherlock Holmes with pretty performers, shaky, faux-handheld camera work, and characters who refuse to smile.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

1:31 PM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Our Professor D was a very real person,in fact the thought of him still frightens me after 39 years!

10:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Smelling acetone on a diabetic is now a classic sign, isn't it?

I think Cardiff University has also played host to another eminent medical man, during its time. Step forward, Bernard Knight, CBE, the forensic pathologist of more than merely "some note". Before retiring, one of his last cases was the West murders in Gloucester. He was also asked to consult on the case of Italian banker, Roberto Calvi found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge, in the 80s, (if I remember correctly) - case never solved.

Knight also writes historical crime - the Crowner John series. Not for him, the hi-tech, metal clinking, Stryker-sawing modern world of pathology in fiction, a la Cornwell and Reichs; Knight prefers to write fiction with a medieval setting.

An interesting paradox for someone with so much knowledge.

My mother is a keen reader of the series and I'm about to embark during my time off before September...

11:37 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

The acetone on the breath was proably an apochryphal tale to impress us, but I believe it is a classic sign.
The Crowner John series sounds interesting, I think I need more shelves.

12:55 PM  

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