Sherlock Holmes, the world’s greatest detective

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born on May 22, 1859.  He is, of course, the creator of the brilliant detective Sherlock Holmes.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The following is excerpted from PBS.org describing a wonderful program:  How Sherlock Changed the World

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From blood to ballistics, from fingerprints to footprints, Sherlock Holmes was 120 years ahead of his time, protecting crime scenes from contamination, looking for minute traces of evidence and searching for what the eye couldn’t see.

Embraced by the public from his very first appearance in 1887, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary creation is more popular than ever, with multiple contemporary film and television series introducing new generations to the detective’s keen observations and lightning powers of deduction.

In an era when eyewitness testimony and “smoking gun” evidence were needed to convict and police incompetence meant that Jack the Ripper stalked the streets freely, Sherlock Holmes used chemistry, bloodstains and fingerprints to catch offenders. In many ways, the modern detective can be seen as a direct extension of Conan Doyle’s literary genius.

Holmes was the first to use ballistics, including bullet trajectory, as evidence in criminal cases. Long before modern toxicologists developed sophisticated tests for chemical analysis, Holmes was using scientific methods to detect the presence of poisons, which for centuries had been used as an undetectable means for murder.

One of the best known forensic scientists in history and an avid reader of Sherlock Holmes stories, Frenchman Edmond Locard built the first real forensics lab in 1910, 23 years after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle dreamed up a fictional one. Like Sherlock, Locard kept meticulous collections of soil, mineral, fiber and hair samples and used a microscope to identify trace evidence. Locard eventually formulated one of the important breakthroughs of modern forensic science, the exchange principle, which states that when two things come into contact, they each leave a trace on the other. Sherlock’s obsession with shoe print evidence also inspired one of the most recent advances in solving crimes — gait analysis.

As Sherlock’s fame grew, so did that of his creator. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle frequently received letters appealing for help with crimes. One such letter led Doyle to turn detective himself, and in 1903 his shrewd observations and experience as an eye doctor helped exonerate a man accused of brutally killing animals in a Staffordshire village. Even though Doyle proved the accused innocent, the police refused to believe it. The experience propelled Doyle to become an influential voice in setting up the first official British Court of Appeal two years later.

The legacy of Holmes, the first crime scene investigator, is not solely as a reservoir of brilliant stories and wonderfully drawn characters, but can be found in the development of modern scientific criminal investigation techniques and improved methods for capturing today’s criminals.

Happy Birthday, Sir Arthur!

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