"How Sherlock Holmes Invented Modern Forensics"

Eric Andrews

Lightning Talk Presented: May 2015
Published: May 31, 2015

It seems ridiculous that a fictional character could shape the way that modern forensics are handled to this day, but Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes was really a true pioneer in a new paradigm of criminology. Ever since before the turn of the 19th century the way that crime was handled was literally the case of "I've caught you red handed" or simply going off a single person's word to determine the fate of the suspected I mean guilty criminal. This was the general way of things through out most of human history, but during the dusk of the 19th century this concept was beginning to change. The creation of new technology brought the world closer together more than ever before.

Urbanization is one of the direct causes of the need for more advanced detection of criminals. During the start of the 19th century the United States had only 6.1% of its population living in cities or towns. What this meant is that everyone knew everyone else. When a crime was committed there wasn't a need for detective work as just asking your neighbor could lead to solving the crime. This method of criminology quickly became antiquated with the advancements from Industrialization as more people moved from the sparsely populated rural environments and headed for the ever growing cities. By the end of the 19th century, over 40% of America's population was living in an urban environment. This growth in urbanization lead to high rates in murder, robbery and prostitution. With such density in population in cities these early methods of detection were no longer applicable to finding the criminals. Such urbanization was not unique to the United States, but was found in England and other countries.

It was in this period of urbanization that Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes—which was published between 1887 and 1927—emergered. This character brought forth the use of modern scientific methods for the use of investigation. Some extremely renowned and well known individuals in real forensics are found to have been referencing Sherlock Holmes through out their lives. One of the more notable is Alphonse Bertillon who is regarded as possibly the creator of forensic science. He was an avid fan of Sherlock Holmes stories and saying that "Sherlock Holmes methods of reasoning [should be] adopted by all professional police."

Another famous individual was Dr. Edmond Locard who was made famous for the use of his application of all kinds of scientific methods. He stated that "Sherlock Holmes was the first to realize the importance of dust. I merely copied his methods." It's right here that we being to realize the importance that Sherlock Holmes has played in the development of modern forensics. With the growth of Holmes's fame also grew that of Conan Doyle whose mind began to be probed for the need to help with ongoing current investigations of his time.

Sherlock Holmes stories were some of the first to ever mention the use and study of tobacco ashes, mud, soil, poisons, hand-writing, stains, dust, footprints, blood splatter, and even was the first to use ballistics. In the stories, Sherlock Holmes had a fascination with foot prints, tracks, and shoe size which sparked advancements of solving crimes using walking gait analysis. It's amazing to realize just how the genius of Conan Doyle's mind sparked one of the greatest paradigm changes in forensics that the world ever saw. His work is still referenced and used today in teaching materials.

Conan Doyle's work applied all theories and scientific concepts of the time into the use of forensics by his character. In the stories "A Study in Scarlet" and "The sign of the Four," Sherlock Holmes is seen using the art of fingerprinting to identify a forgery of a thumb impression. It was considered one of the first instances of using fingerprinting as a form of forensic evidence. Fingerprinting had been around for quite some time before hand but was used for recording and classification of fingerprints.

Another interesting fact is that Holmes is known as the earliest known to use Typewriter Identification. In "A Case of Identity," Holmes received a threatening note made up of words cut out from different newspapers and he was able to Identify where the words had been printed. Although he is not the first to make reference to identify it, the uniqueness of an individual's hand writing was used though out the stories.

Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes teaches how even the most unlikely peace of evidence can turn into the most useful part of solving a crime. These stories have resonated threw to modern day forensics and continue to help with the development with solving crime today. Who knows what the world of forensics would be without the creative mind of Conan Doyle to influence the imaginations of our ancestors.

For Further Reading

    Fiala, Robert. Kamens, David "Urban Growth and the World Polity in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: A Research Agenda" Studies in Comparative International Development, 21. 1 (1986): 23+.

    King, Peter. "Urbanization, Rising Homicide Rates and the Geography of Lethal Violence in Scotland, 1800-1860." History 96.323. (2011): 231-259.

    Leo, Hollis. Cities Are Good for You. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013. Print.

    Russ, Ouellette. "On Sherlock Holmes." Talking Tobacco. May 3, 2012.

    Stanton, Berg. "Sherlock Holmes: Father of Scientific Crime Detection." Northwestern University School of Law. 61.3 (1970).

    Rosie, Geiger "How Sherlock Changed the World." PBS: Detroit Public Television. 2011.






Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
(1859-1930)