Sunday, March 1, 2020

Can Sherlock Holmes Teach Today's Doctors?

To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman.   Thus begins Conan Doyle’s, A Scandal in Bohemia published in 1891.   In this gripping tale, Holmes is bested by a woman who proves to be the detective’s equal in intelligence and deception.  

For reasons I cannot explain, I restrict my exposure to Holmes and Dr. Watson to podcast listening when I am airborne.  Years ago, I did love watching the classic movies starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce who defined the roles for me. 

Conan Doyle, a physician, was a superb story teller, who wove his tales with texture, plot and humanity.  I think he wields words with surgical precision.   I admire his skill.

I wonder to what extent Conan Doyle’s medical training influenced his writing?  Certainly, the stories often discuss arcane medical conditions that provide the detective with important clues.  In The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier, Holmes suspects that the protagonist is suffering from leprosy, a diagnosis that is revised after Holmes arranges for a consulting dermatologist to examine the soldier. 

Holmes would have been master diagnostician.

Beyond these medical intricacies that the author includes, I suggest that Conan Doyle has a more direct connection to the world’s most famous sleuth.  Physicians operate as detectives.  We gather facts and evidence in real time.  We have suspicions which may be strengthened or refuted as additional data emerges.  There may be competing theories that torture us.   At times, we are forced to make judgments and recommendations when our knowledge base in incomplete.   And some of our patients’ dilemmas remain unsolved, similar to crime solvers’ cold cases. 

In The Sign of the Four, Holmes remarks to Watson, How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.  Holmes would have been a superb physician.  


  1. I enjoyed your brief exploration of the medical similarities between Sherlock Holmes and his physician creator -- this is not surprising, since Conan Doyle acknowledged that he based the character of Sherlock Holmes on one of his influential teachers at the University of Edinburgh school of medicine, Dr. Joseph Bell. Bell was famous for his ability to make quick deductions from the appearance of a patient, not merely a dx but insights into the patient's work, family life, etc. Biographical work on Conan Doyle explores this at length, as does the biography written by an old friend of mine, Prof. Ely Liebow, Dr. Joe Bell: Model for Sherlock Holmes.

  2. I enjoyed your article. As a physician, member of The Baker Street Irregulars, and Civil War junkie, there is no question that Conan Doyle's medical training hugely influenced his writing, including there Sherlock Holmes stories. Holmes is modeled after one of his medical school professors, Dr. Joseph Bell. There are several books addressing the subject which you might want to look into. Ely Liebow's biography of Dr. Bell is out of print but I can help you locate a copy. I co-edited a book entirely devoted to Sherlock Holmes and Medicine. I recently wrote a chapter in another book where I suggest that Holmes was indeed a physician by training, if not practice. A fine Conan Doyle biography was written by Daniel Stashower. I can steer you to any of those books if you have time to read them. Best wishes in these challenging times. Robert S. Katz, MD (retired Pathologist)

  3. I am truly honored to have two such erudite gentlemen-scholars comment on this blog. You have both piqued my interest to learn more of Joseph Bell! I hope, that should your time and interest permit, that you might return to blog and raise the level of discourse. MK