Refractions, Retroscopy, and Sherlock Holmes

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

We at Glimpse tend to see people as multi-faceted, which of course they are. Rarely are experts in any given field motivated by one singular vision. This holds true for the great mystery writer, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Although he is perhaps most famous for his grisly Sherlock Holmes series, Doyle was also a practicing ophthalmologist, at least for a little while.

Doyle attended medical school at the University of Edinburgh from 1876 to 1881 where he was deeply impressed by one of his teachers in particular, Joseph Bell. Bell held keen powers of observation and deduction, and could often diagnose a patient simply by studying the condition of his or her fingernails! In fact, it was in Bell that Doyle found his prototype for the meticulous detective work of Sherlock Holmes (Doyle gave Sherlock the last name of “Holmes” in reverence for Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes).

Doyle himself went on to experience a somewhat fragmented career in medicine, spending part of his post-graduate years as a ship surgeon on the west coast of Africa, and eight and a half years as a practicing physician in Southsea. Finding little financial success, Doyle pursued ophthalmology in London. In The Stark Munroe Letters, Doyle’s autobiographical character Stark explains,

“I’ve taken to the eye, my boy. There’s a fortune in the eye. A man grudges a half-crown to cure his chest or his throat, but he’d spend his last dollar over his eye. There’s money in ears, but the eye is a gold mine!”

The eye did not prove to be the financial gold mine Doyle had hoped for, but it did serve as inspiration for certain Sherlock Holmes stories such as “The Adventure of the Golden Prince-Nez.” In the story, Holmes detects the “sex, facial appearance, body structure, and walk of the suspect” from a mere pair of glasses.

Doyle’s contributions to medicine may have been scarce, but his love affair with the field proved invaluable to readers. As a doctor by the name of Maurice B. Campbell noted in the British Medical Journal in 1934,

“It is doubtful if the works of any other novelist describe extrasystoles, oedema due to fibrillation, angina pectoris, aneurysm, rheumatic valve disease, and left ventricular failure with orthopnea with such careful adherence to medical probabilities.”


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