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A Study in Scarlet: How Sherlock Holmes Predicted a Real-Life Forensic Discovery

“No doubt you see the significance of this discovery of mine?” The question at hand had to do with blood, and more specifically a test for...

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“No doubt you see the significance of this discovery of mine?”

The question at hand had to do with blood, and more specifically a test for being able to spot it. It had been asked by a tall, and rather thin Englishman, whose fingertips were stained with blotches from the various chemicals he had been working with.

“It is interesting, chemically, no doubt,” replied his guest, a medical doctor and veteran of the Afghan war. “But practically—”

Before he could finish the thought, what followed became what is arguable one of the most famous expositions on forensic science ever to be written:

“Why, man, it is the most practical medico-legal discovery for years. Don’t you see that it gives us an infallible test for blood stains. Come over here now!” He seized me by the coat sleeve in his eagerness, and drew me over to the table at which he had been working. “Let us have some fresh blood,” he said, digging a long bodkin into his finger, and drawing off the resulting drop of blood in a chemical pipette. “Now, I add this small quantity of blood to a litre of water. You perceive that the resulting mixture has the appearance of pure water. The proportion of blood cannot be more than one in a million. I have no doubt, however, that we shall be able to obtain the characteristic reaction.” 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.”

Of course, part of what makes this story so interesting is that the events described above never really happened; they are the immortal words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, from his famous short novel A Study in Scarlet, which introduced readers of the Victorian era to the world’s greatest detective: Sherlock Holmes.

Although the events may never have taken place, they bear remarkable similarity to a set of real-life circumstances, as they foreshadowed the later discovery of an actual test for detecting bloodstains.

In 1901, a similar test that could detect the presence of blood both inexpensively, and reliably, was devised by Dr. Jospeh H. Kastle of Kentucky University. The procedure, known as the Kastle-Meyer test, is sometimes also called “The Sherlock Holmes Test” because of its similarity to the process described by Doyle 13 years before its real-life counterpart.

As chemist Robert Bruce Thompson notes, “Although this description doesn’t correspond exactly to the test… there’s little doubt that Sherlock Holmes was the true inventor of this test. Arthur Conan Doyle, who was at best an unreliable chronicler, probably didn’t take notes as he watched Holmes perform the test, or perhaps Doyle obfuscated the details for reasons of his own.”

All kidding aside, Holmes’s, or rather, Doyle’s influence on the field of forensic science can’t be emphasized enough. Professor Harold H. Trimm, Ph.D. of the Department of Chemistry, Broome Community College, notes that shortly after the publication of Doyle’s stories, “The weight of public opinion soon forced many police departments to start hiring scientists to more thoroughly analyze this second avenue of investigation, physical evidence.” In essence, forensic science was born out of public reaction to the fictional exploits of Sherlock Holmes.

Doyle’s creation of Sherlock Holmes is merely one instance where real discoveries or coincidences involving prescience or other oddities have occurred with well-known fiction writing. However, few writers can claim to have had the kind of influence on the sciences that Doyle’s character did. Thus, despite being a fictional creation, his exploits leave little doubt that he was indeed the world’s greatest detective.

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