Simanaitis Says

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NO LESS than Dr. John H. Watson, chronicler of his friend Sherlock Holmes, refers to Sigmund Freud as “the greatest detective of them all.” Or at least this high praise is reported in Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, 1975, which recounts Watson’s attempt to cure Holmes of his cocaine habit. So the story goes, the pair visits this young Viennese physician who resolves Holmes’ paranoia moriartii. This disorder, identified in 1966 by American psychiatrist Dr. David Musto, had Holmes believing that Professor Moriarty was more than just a kindly old professor of maths. Imagine that!

Indeed, Meyer’s Viennese adventure contradicts with Holmes’ two-year Tibetan sabbatical disguised as a Norwegian called Sigerson. On the other hand, neither tale is absolutely Canonical. Both are great fun. And each has encouraged further Sherlockiana.


Sherlock Holmes and the Case of Dr. Freud, by Michael Shepherd, Tavistock Publications, 1985.

Michael Shepherd, M.A., D.M., F.R.C.P., F.R.C. Psych., D.P.M., 1923 – 1995, was Professor of Epidemiological Psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry, University of London. (Really.) And he was also evidently an ardent and scholarly Sherlockian. Shepherd’s monograph Sherlock Holmes and the Case of Dr Freud is based on his Squipp History of Psychiatry Lecture delivered at the Institute of Psychiatry in 1984. It’s replete with Sherlockian tidbits, several of which I share here.

For example, did Holmes’ shooting up cocaine lead to his alleged paranoia moriartii? Freud himself experimented with this pharmaceutical and published his results in Über Coca, 1884. Holmes’ literary agent Arthur Conan Doyle also carried out self-administered drug doses, albeit of gelsemium, aka Jeffersonia Brick, derived from Gelsemium sempervirens.


Sir Arthur Conon Doyle, 1859 – 1930, English literary agent, physician, experimenter with gelsemium. This and other images from Sherlock Holmes and the Case of Dr Freud.

Michael Shepherd references a Doyle paper in this regard published in the British Medical Journal, 1879. Shepherd also cites a 1967 report in Science 156:346 by W. Modell. Modell states, “Although habit-forming, cocaine is not tenaciously so, and since it is not physiologically addictive, strong personalities like Freud and Sherlock Holmes had no trouble in controlling the habit.”

In short, maybe Holmes was merely suffering from occupational inertia. We’ve all been there.

On another matter entirely, Holmes and Freud shared marvelous skills of observation. With Holmes, these were of externalities, the callus on a man’s thumb, the knees of a man’s trousers. With Freud, the observations were of an inner reality, of dreams, of mother and father, of er… other things. Is a cigar only a cigar? Sometimes, yes.

Shepherd notes that neither Holmes nor Freud was original in displaying such observational skills. He cites Voltaire’s Zadig, 1748, (not to be confused with Zadig & Voltaire, today’s French off-the-peg fashions). Zadig gave complete details of a horse, merely by analyzing the lanes through which it trod. Much earlier, perhaps in 1302, a Persian fairy tale described three princes with extraordinary skills of this sort. “In ancient times there existed in the country of Serendippo…,” whence our word serendipity.

This observational skill came to be known as Retrospective Prophecy, making educated guesses of the past by careful observance of the present.

Another proponent of Retrospective Prophecy cited by Shepherd is the Italian physician/art historian/political figure (an interesting combination) Giovanni Morelli, 1826 – 1891. Morelli stressed that “every painter has his own peculiarities which escape him without his being aware of them…. Anyone, therefore, who wants to study a painter closely, must discover these material trifles and attend to them with care.”


Above, ears as typically portrayed by famous artists, according to Morelli. Below, Botticelli hands, per Morelli. Images from Sherlock Holmes and Dr Freud.


As others have observed, the devil is in the details.

Freud knew of this theory, published under a pseudonym Ivan Lermolieff (an anagram of Giovanni Morelli—I hate anagrams.) Freud wrote, “It seems to me that this method of inquiry is closely related to the technique of psychoanalysis. It, too, is accustomed to divine secret concealed things from despised or unnoticed features from the rubbish-heap, as it were, of our observation.”

Freud and Holmes, from

Freud and Holmes, from “A Study in Cocaine,” by Dr. D.M. Musto, Journal of the American Medical Association, 1968.

As Holmes might have said, “Commonplace, my dear Watson.” Alas, he didn’t actually say this, any more than “Elementary, my dear Watson.” But that’s another story. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2015


  1. phil ford
    October 12, 2015

    In case you hadn’t read about this yet, I thought I should share it.

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