“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”
Arthur Conan Doyle
preparing to write on Medical Investigation, following our previous
essays on Medical Misinformation and Information, the great detective
Sherlock Holmes and his creator Arthur Conan Doyle came to mind. So, we
did some review of The Medical Casebook of Arthur Conan Doyle.
Then, we decided that it might be useful and even enjoyable for
followers to look at the life of one of the world’s most read authors –
and later consider that renowned sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, and obvious medical skills.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
(1859-1930) was a British subject of varied career and huge talent,
wide experience and keen insights on medicine and illness, life and the
world at large. Doyle entered adult life as a medical student at the
University of Edinburgh. He completed his studies in 1881 when he was
barely 22 years of age. Becoming a doctor at such early age was quite
common in his era.
Doyle remembered his training as being “one long weary grind of botany,
chemistry, anatomy, physiology, and a whole list of compulsory
subjects, many of which have a very indirect bearing upon the art of
curing. The whole system of teaching, as I look back upon it, seems far
too oblique and not nearly practical enough for the purpose in
Like this writer, he thought his instructors did “… expend undue
attention upon rare diseases, and take the common ones for granted.” We
wonder what Dr. Doyle might think of the current medical teaching
system. Has it really changed all that much in 140 years?
In later years, Doyle wrote mostly about his first six months in
practice, and much less on the rest of his ten years in active medical
work. Although he had a brief career in medicine, Doyle considered his
medical training to be a most valuable possession. “A great place to
begin observing humans, their ills as well as their potentials,” one
Interestingly, Doyle seemed to think “the work too hard,” on the one
hand. On the other, he fought tedium for long periods waiting for
patients to appear at his office.
Fortunately his interests widened, as they continued to do for most of
his life. While waiting for patients, he remarked that his mind turned
to writing, oculism (ophthalmology), and occultism – as well as the
sport of cricket.
Turning from his insuccess in general medicine, Doyle thought for a
time that, “There’s a fortune in the eye,” and turned to Europe to
study that new medical specialty. But Dr. Doyle’s affair with the eye
was short lived.
Writing gradually engulfed his life as Conan Doyle became involved in
writing the Sherlock Holmes tales. But, he was even more taken with
writings on history and related novels, poetry, drama, and psychism.
Amidst his varied careers, Arthur Conan Doyle was known to patients and
public for his compassion and humor. He was well respected and
knowledgeable in wide ranges of medicine of the day. Despite his brief
tour in medical practice, Doyle was said to possess “a genuine sense of
When the Boer War erupted, in 1899 Doyle took off for duty in South
Africa. He was there noted to be “a cheery doctor who carried the
sunshine with him wherever he went.” Stories were told of his
attachment, interest and keen care of the sick, injured, and dying
All the same considering the broad scope of illness and healing, Doyle
concluded that much of so-called medical progress was quite illusory.
While Abraham Flexner was preparing his Report in America in 1910
which led to hospital and laboratory based medicine, Conan Doyle held
views which clashed with the rising tide. Doyle was concerned with the
state of “undue materialism and intellectual priggishness (arrogance)”
which beset medical circles.
He believed that medical science to a large degree was “a huge and
ludicrous experiment.” At the same time, he perceived medical practice
was turning more and more toward technical knowledge and terminology
over rapport and bedside manner. Doyle complained about the
overemphasis on disease over patients. He was a great champion of the
value of sympathy and personality in dealing with humans and their ills.
We can confidently say that he addressed the keys to sound Medical Information listed in our previous essay:
• Spirit – Doyle recognized the presence of spirit and spirits
in our midst. They were and are fundamental to health and the healing
process. In his latter years, Conan Doyle dedicated himself to the
study of Spiritualism and wrote a number of books on the subject.
• Consciousness – Doctor Doyle was quite aware of the powers of soul/mind in patients and in physicians. He wrote on the Great Keinplatz Experiment which proved to him that “soul or mind can be mesmerized to separate from the body.”
• Essence – On a wider scale Doyle was confident that the universe was based on order, thus it must be directed by mind. Order may be considered as one of the universal essences or archetypes.
• Substance – Doyle recognized vitality (called prana
in the East) as fundamental to health and recovery from illness and
injury. As noted above, he was familiar to a degree with mesmeric
influences when he noted that Dr. Winter had “the healing touch – that
magnetic thing which defies explanation or analysis … His mere presence
leaves the patient with more hopefulness and vitality.”
• Story – Arthur Conan Doyle was storyteller par excellence. He could write stories because he understood the importance of story in human existence and human illness. This part of Doyle was key to his creation of Sherlock Holmes whose own story will be highlighted further on.
• Nature – Doctor Doyle was keen to recognize the “wisdom which runs through nature.”
One of his favorite poems was that of another Holmes – the American
physician Oliver Wendell Holmes. An excerpt from his The Morning Visit follows.
Of all the ills that suffering man endures,
The largest fraction liberal Nature cures;
Of those remaining, ‘tis the smallest part
Yields to the efforts of judicious [medical] Art;
But simple Kindness, kneeling by the bed
To shift the pillow for the sick man’s head,
Give the fresh draught to cool the lips that burn,
Fan the hot brow, the weary frame to turn,–
Kindness, untutored by our grave M. D.’s,
But Nature’s graduate, when she schools to please,
Wins back more sufferers with her voice and smile
Than all the trumpery in the druggist’s pile.
• Wholeness – Conan Doyle was himself a true holistic
doctor, long before the word came into popular parlance. He knew that
the inmost essence of the man does not lie in his physical body – not
“in the bony framework which is the rack over which nature hangs her
veil of flesh – but there lurks that impalpable seed, to which the rest
of our frame is but the pod.”
He recognized a human being much like a book – the body being its
cover, the essence or life substance and spirit existing in its pages.
Doyle was ahead of his times in many ways. But as far as most people
are concerned, Arthur Conan Doyle’s greatest contribution to society
was his creation of the investigative genius he named Sherlock Holmes.
The fictional Holmes was a huge success, even while in a few years
Doyle got bored with his detective and tried to “do him in.” The public
wouldn’t allow that, and Sherlock had to be resurrected several years
after his supposed death.
From a present perspective, we have to believe that Holmes’s popularity
was due to personal magnetism of his true ego: his creator, Doctor
Doyle. Doyle imbued life, intelligence, and wisdom into Sherlock Holmes
to the degree that was developing within himself. And the public was
enthralled with the “consulting detective” to the tune of 56 short
stories and four novels.
Holmes in print was a paragon of Medical Investigation drawn into the
larger world of criminal and civil life. It was no accident that
Sherlock’s silent partner was Dr. Watson. Between the two of them, they
mirrored Doyle’s wide expertise. While his gifts had gone relatively
unnoticed by his medical clientele, they were writ boldly in the form
of Mr. Holmes for a vast, long and addictive reading public – some of
whom believed the fictional hero to a real individual.
Doyle eventually told that Holmes was partially modeled on his medical
school teacher Joseph Bell. In 1892, Doyle wrote to Bell saying, “It is
most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes.... Around the centre
of deduction and inference and observation which I have heard you
inculcate, I have tried to build up a man.”
Bell may have been the model, but Doyle was the detective’s creator,
sustainer and vital energizer. Investigator Holmes displayed all manner
of medical skills to meet demands of stories and readers. He was and is
still known for his proficiency with observation, deduction, forensic
science and logical reasoning that borders on the fantastic.
He aimed to create “an exact science” in his detective work, becoming
cold and even unemotional at times. All the same, Holmes was said to
practice what is now called mindfulness, concentrating on one thing at
a time. He generally refrained from “multitasking.”
Like the greatest physicians, Holmes was a master at observation – keen
to pick up every possible visible and tangible clue. Holmes was called
a “spectacular diagnostician” noted for drawing broad conclusions from
Even more inexplicable to readers and followers, Sherlock Holmes was
somehow able to reach “certain” inferences in many of his cases.
Like Bell, Doyle and Holmes, all of us have at least in potential
similar capabilities to diagnose clearly, come to certain inferences,
and to ultimately know ourselves. Along the way, we can surely become
outstanding Medical Investigators in likes of Conan Doyle and Sherlock
So, our next and final essay will focus on You and Me as Medical Investigators.
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