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Sherlock Holmes chemistry, chemist

Gábor Lente full professor of chemistry - University of Pécs, Institute of Chemistry

His English language blog:

Sherlockian Holmesian

Sherlock Holmes is likely to be the most popular chemist of all times, although he owes his fame primarily to another profession: his consultant detective career. In his reminiscences, John Watson, M.D., late of the Army Medical Department, recorded some of the details of the scientific activity of his former roommate.

Details of Sherlock Holmes's early life in Conan Doyle's 4 long and 54 short stories are scarce and often vague. His birth year can be calculated as 1854, but other information points to 1861. There are no mentions of his parents at all, the most direct reference to this topic says that his ancestors were country squires. He has a brother Mycroft, seven years his senior, he appears in three of the stories and works as a government official. Fans concluded that Sherlock was educated at Cambridge, more specifically at Sidney Sussex College. The first impressions of Dr. Watson were that Holmes’s knowledge of literature was nil. Later remarks make it clear that the detective could read epigrams in Latin. In any case, this language was compulsory at each university in England in the second half of the 19th century. Sherlock frequently cites the Bible, as well as the works of Shakespeare and Goethe. One of the stories is closed by French sentence quoted from a letter of Flaubert.

In the highly documented part of his life between 1881 and 1904, Holmes lived at 221B Baker Street, London and shared rooms with Dr. Watson for a long time. This was a fictional address. Today, the Sherlock Holmes Museum displays this number, although the building itself is between 237 and 241 Baker Street. From 1891 to 1894, Holmes was believed to be dead. In this period, he travelled for two years in Tibet, and spent some days with the head lama. Reports of the remarkable explorations of a Norwegian named Sigerson were entirely of his making. He then passed through Persia, looked in at Mecca, and paid a short but interesting visit to the Khalifa at Khartoum. He spent some months in a research into the coal-tar derivatives, which he conducted in a laboratory at Montpellier. He continued his public consultant detective services after returning to London. Holmes retired to a small farm on the Sussex Downs and took up beekeeping as his primary occupation. He has continued this life ever since, and has even written a book on this subject. He still replies to letters sent to his former address at 221B Baker Street.

As evidenced by quotes from the original stories, Holmes made extensive use of his chemical knowledge in his investigations. He could identify soil samples and tobacco ashes by simply looking at them, recognized different cigarette butts and could match spent bullets with a suspected murder weapon. A darker side of his personality is mentioned from time to time: Holmes sometimes used addictive drugs, especially in the absence of stimulating cases. He was an occasional consumer of cocaine and morphine; both drugs were legal in 19th-century England.

In 2002, the Royal Society of Chemistry bestowed an honorary fellowship on Sherlock Holmes for his use of forensic science and analytical chemistry in crime investigation. He is the only fictional character to receive this honour.

Quotes from Sherlock Holmes stories:

"I've found it! I've found it," he shouted to my companion, running towards us with a test-tube in his hand. "I have found a re-agent which is precipitated by hoemoglobin, and by nothing else." Had he discovered a gold mine, greater delight could not have shone upon his features.
"Dr. Watson, Mr. Sherlock Holmes," said Stamford, introducing us.
"How are you?" he said cordially, gripping my hand with a strength for which I should hardly have given him credit. "You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive."
"How on earth did you know that?" I asked in astonishment.
"Never mind," said he, chuckling to himself. "The question now is about hoemoglobin. No doubt you see the significance of this discovery of mine?"
"It is interesting, chemically, no doubt," I answered, "but practically ----"
"Why, man, it is the most practical medico-legal discovery for years. Don't you see that it gives us an infallible test for blood stains. Come over here now!" He seized me by the coat-sleeve in his eagerness, and drew me over to the table at which he had been working. "Let us have some fresh blood," he said, digging a long bodkin into his finger, and drawing off the resulting drop of blood in a chemical pipette. "Now, I add this small quantity of blood to a litre of water. You perceive that the resulting mixture has the appearance of pure water. The proportion of blood cannot be more than one in a million. I have no doubt, however, that we shall be able to obtain the characteristic reaction." As he spoke, he threw into the vessel a few white crystals, and then added some drops of a transparent fluid. In an instant the contents assumed a dull mahogany colour, and a brownish dust was precipitated to the bottom of the glass jar.
- A Study In Scarlet

It was not until close upon six o'clock that I found myself free and was able to spring into a hansom and drive to Baker Street, half afraid that I might be too late to assist at the dénouement of the little mystery. I found Sherlock Holmes alone, however, half asleep, with his long, thin form curled up in the recesses of his armchair. A formidable array of bottles and test-tubes, with the pungent cleanly smell of hydrochloric acid, told me that he had spent his day in the chemical work which was so dear to him.
"Well, have you solved it?" I asked as I entered.
"Yes. It was the bisulphate of baryta."
"No, no, the mystery!" I cried.
"Oh, that! I thought of the salt that I have been working upon. There was never any mystery in the matter, though, as I said yesterday, some of the details are of interest.
- A Case of Identity

Our chambers were always full of chemicals and of criminal relics which had a way of wandering into unlikely positions, and of turning up in the butter-dish or in even less desirable places.
- Musgrave Ritual

„All this occurred during the first month of the long vacation. I went up to my London rooms, where I spent seven weeks working out a few experiments in organic chemistry. One day, however, when the autumn was far advanced and the vacation drawing to a close, I received a telegram from my friend imploring me to return to Donnithorpe, and saying that he was in great need of my advice and assistance.
- The "Gloria Scott"

Holmes was seated at his side-table clad in his dressing-gown, and working hard over a chemical investigation. A large curved retort was boiling furiously in the bluish flame of a Bunsen burner, and the distilled drops were condensing into a two-litre measure. My friend hardly glanced up as I entered, and I, seeing that his investigation must be of importance, seated myself in an arm-chair and waited. He dipped into this bottle or that, drawing out a few drops of each with his glass pipette, and finally brought a test-tube containing a solution over to the table. In his right hand he held a slip of litmus-paper.
"You come at a crisis, Watson," said he. "If this paper remains blue, all is well. If it turns red, it means a man's life." He dipped it into the test-tube and it flushed at once into a dull, dirty crimson.
- Naval Treaty

Sherlock Holmes chemistry, chemist


His English language blog:

© The copyright belongs entirely to the author Dr. Gábor Lente.

The article was previously published in Hungarian at:

1, Hungarian Journal of Chemists - 2014. July-August issue, 245. p.
2, Ponticulus Hungaricus - the journal of John von Neumann Computer Society Education Department - web:
3, ScienceBit - The blog of Dr. Gábor Lente - web:
4, Our Hungarian blog - web:

Sherlockian Holmesian

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