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How did Sherlock Holmes change the world of Forensic Science?

By: Kaitlin Troha


The field of forensic science is a critical element of any justice system- between the examination of evidence and assistance in the prosecution and investigation of suspects, it covers many of the bases required to properly convict a perpetrator. However, prior to 1887, many of the analysis techniques available today were not used in solving crimes. The introduction of a certain fictional character brought radical changes to the way forensic science is practiced, from the incorporation of fingerprint evidence to the use of deductive reasoning to determine what happened in a case. This character, of course, is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.

Ever since his first appearance in a Study in Scarlet in 1887, Sherlock Holmes has inspired change in the world of forensics. Through his novels, Conan Doyle introduced new scientific theories, which inspired Scotland Yard to make changes to their own procedure. Within the first few chapters of a Study in Scarlet, John Watson (narrator) is introduced to Sherlock Holmes, who has just developed a chemical test for bloodstains. In the Forensic Science elective here at WNHS, we do a lab using the chemical presumptive tests, which were created after Holmes’s hemoglobin reagent- the first was finalized in 1903. The next Holmes novel, the Sign of Four (1890), was the first use of fingerprint evidence, which is now one of the most famed branches of forensic science. Fingerprints can be collected in many different ways, including the several methods used in the class’s fingerprinting lab. The ridge detail of a fingerprint can be analyzed for the basic pattern, and then farther for the minutiae- the individual tiny differences between two fingerprints with the same overall shape (arch, loop or whorl).

One of Sherlock’s most famous approaches to investigation is the use of deductive reasoning, or the use of evidence to draw a logical conclusion. This is what, in many cases, makes him appear strange to the other characters in the novels: he is able to piece together evidence and conclusions so efficiently that he can easily create and discard potential scenarios for a crime before Watson or Police Inspector Lestrad (character) can even begin. In their first meeting, Watson is astounded by the sheer amount of information Sherlock is immediately clued in on: he deduces that Watson is an army doctor, recently returned from Afghanistan, just from Watson’s appearance.

When asked, Mrs. Terada (the teacher of Wheaton North’s forensics elective, which is available to juniors and seniors) states that she uses examples in class to support deductive reasoning, observation vs. inference, the scientific method, Locard’s principle of exchange, and blood spatter pattern analysis - many key concepts of the subject. Wheaton North students interested in any of the fields of forensics (entomology, anthropology, odontology…) or just looking to learn more about the overlaps between science and the justice system should absolutely consider this course for a science credit! In addition, Mrs. Terada recommends a DVD by PBS: it’s called How Sherlock Changed the World, and it’s available from the Wheaton Public Library. If you’re interested in this topic, definitely take a look!

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