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Sherlock Holmes knew chemistry

By James F. O’Brien


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle claimed that he wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories while waiting in his medical office for the patients who never came. When this natural teller of tales decided to write a detective story, he borrowed the concept of a cerebral detective from Edgar Allan Poe, who had “invented” the detective story in 1841 when he wrote The Murders in the Rue Morgue. So, in 1887, the brilliant Holmes debuts in A Study in Scarlet. The second Holmes story, The Sign of the Four, is a rewrite of The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841). Instead of an Orangutan scaling the unscaleable wall and killing the occupant, Doyle uses Tonga, a pygmy from the Andaman Islands to do the job. The third Holmes story, A Scandal in Bohemia, is a rewrite of Poe’s The Purloined Letter. Instead of seeking the Queen of France’s letter, Holmes must find the King of Bohemia’s incriminating photograph.

Doyle wrote a total of 60 Holmes stories and most of the time Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson share lodgings in London. Their very lives reflect the superior English education of that era. At 221b Baker Street the conversation is full of mathematical terms such as surds, conic sections, and the fifth proposition of Euclid. We hear about astronomy too: the obliquity of the ecliptic and the dynamics of asteroids. But Holmes is a chemist at heart. Before Watson even meets Holmes he is told by Young Stamford that Holmes “is a first-class chemist.” Almost every one of the tales contains a reference to some chemical. They range from elements like zinc (Zn) and copper (Cu), to industrial chemicals such as sulphuric acid and the dye Tyrian purple. Of course numerous poisons are mentioned, and several are used.

Watson, the narrator, makes Holmes’s devotion to chemistry very clear. While still a student Holmes spent his Christmas break working on experiments in organic chemistry. Holmes had a “chemical table” in their Baker Street flat. On at least one occasion the odors drove Watson to leave the premises. Another time Holmes suspended working on a case because he had “a chemical analysis of some interest to finish.” Would that Sherlock had solved more cases by chemical means, but still the chemist finds much of interest in nearly every one of the 60 tales.

Arthur Conan Doyle was also at the forefront of forensic innovation. Holmes used fingerprints (before Scotland Yard), footprints, dogs, document analysis (before the FBI started its document section), and cryptology. After Doyle’s death it was noted that,

“Poisons, handwriting, stains, dust, footprints, traces of wheels, the shape and position of wounds, the theory of cryptograms — all these and other excellent methods which germinated in Conan Doyle’s fertile imagination are now part and parcel of every detective’s scientific equipment.”

There is more science in the first half of the “Canon” and its prevalence has clearly affected the popularity of the individual tales. The Holmes stories have been ranked several times and the results consistently support the idea that those stories which contain science are preferred over those that do not. Even Conan Doyle’ own rankings agree with this. In 1927 he listed his favorite stories — 19 of them. Fifteen were from the first 30 stories and only four from the last 30. Other rankings yield the same result. In 1959 The Baker Street Journal listed the results of a poll which named the ten best and the ten worst Sherlock Holmes tales. Eight of the ten best were from the first half; while nine of the ten worst were from the last half. Sherlock Holmes was, and is, a detective that every scientist can love.

James F. O’Brien is the author of The Scientific Sherlock Holmes: Cracking the Case with Science and Forensics. Like our country he was born in Philadelphia on the Fourth of July, many years ago. He has degrees in chemistry from Villanova and Minnesota. He played college and professional basketball. He retired from Missouri State University as Distinguished Professor. A lifelong fan of Holmes, O’Brien presented his paper “What Kind of Chemist Was Sherlock Holmes” at the 1992 national American Chemical Society meeting, which resulted in an invitation to write a chapter on Holmes the chemist in the book Chemistry and Science Fiction. O’Brien has since given over 120 lectures on Holmes and science.

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Image credit: Cover of Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887, featuring A. Conan Doyle’s story A Study in Scarlet. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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5 Responses to “Sherlock Holmes knew chemistry”
  1. While it’s clear the best stories are from the early Holmes tales, it’s a mixed bag on the bottom 10.

    For Conan Doyle’s own rankings in 1927, he specifically excluded his last stories from his list since they had not yet been published in book form.

    The 1959 BSJ poll of the 10 Best and 10 Least had a small sample size and the instructions for ranking the 10 least stories were ambiguous – so you should not rely on the order given for those 10 (though as a group they should reflect the voters’ opinions).

    I conducted the most extensive poll ever of Baker Street Journal readers in 1999, and those results show the best tales are from the first two collections of 24 stories. The December 1999 BSJ includes the details. As noted on my website, the (indirectly rated) ‘least’ tales come from all different periods.

    Conan Doyle’s best Holmes stories came shortly after he completed his medical education and was practicing medicine. Given that education, it’s not surprising that he included more science in his early Holmes tales, and these are unquestionably the best.

    For more information on rating the stories and the various reader polls, see my website The Best of Sherlock Holmes.

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