CONVERSATIONS: Not So “Elementary”–Cleveland’s Sherlock and Modern Forensics

Aug 2016
Conversation: Not so “Elementary”–Cleveland’s Sherlock and Modern Forensics
Discussion Partner:  
Dr. Nicole M. Burt, Curator and Head of Human Health & Evolutionary Medicine
Cleveland Public Library Downtown, Brett Hall
Saturday August 6th, 3:00PM

“If a gentleman walks into my rooms smelling of iodoform, with a black mark of nitrate of silver upon his right forefinger, and a bulge on the right side of his top-hat to show where he has secreted his stethoscope, I must be dull, indeed, if I do not pronounce him to be an active member of the medical profession.”—Sherlock Holmes, “A Scandal in Bohemia”

The science of deduction gained popularity because of Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved Sherlock Holmes, but forensic practice has been around for a surprisingly long time. In the year 1248, a Chinese text, The Washing Away of Wrongs, described how to tell from physical evidence whether a victim was strangled or drowned. In 1302, we get the first recorded autopsy for a suspected murder, and in 1447 the first time missing teeth were used to determine the identity of a victim (it turned out to be the French Duke of Burgundy). The invention of the microscope may have been the first great triumph for forensics, but without an understanding of chemical compounds, even a closer look wouldn’t do you much good: it requires a particular set of skills. Doyle makes Sherlock a chemist—and Watson a doctor—but for real success, you need them both. In Cleveland, we had our own “Sherlock,” a chemist and a doctor, a forensic toxicologist deeply interested in solving all manner of crimes: John George Spenzer (1864-1932)

After graduating with his MD at 16, then getting a PhD in two years and going on to serve as a fellow of the College of Surgeons in Paris, Spenzer returned to Cleveland and set up shop as an “Expert” (which he prominently displayed on his letterhead). His encyclopedic collection would rival that of Sherlock Holmes–and in fact, Spenzer kept clippings about the man Sherlock was based upon, Dr. Joseph Bell. Spenzer’s desire for careful presentation of data led him to “correct” the newspaper clippings and trial records in his collection. With the dedication of Sherlock and the caustic wit of House, Spenzer solved crimes like the grisly murder of Ora Lee, the poisoning of Mrs. Kizer, and even aided in convicting the “killer of the Heights.” His prowess at the turn of the 20th century demonstrates that those who understood chemistry, human anatomy, and the practice of careful observation truly brought forensics from fiction to fact—and that fascinating journey is far from elementary!

Register Now online or call Brandy Schillace at 216-368-6778. (note, the registration is all the way at the bottom of the linked page)