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Johnson & Johnson and Sherlock Holmes

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By Margaret Gurowitz
Feb 22, 2012

One is a global health care company.  The other is the world’s most famous fictional detective, who has a very real museum dedicated to him at 221B Baker Street in London, his famous fictional residence.  So what does Sherlock Holmes have to do with the founding of Johnson & Johnson?  Well, Watson, if you haven’t already deduced the answer (one might even be tempted to say it’s elementary), read on to find out how they’re connected!

Public domain illustration of Sherlock Holmes by Victorian illustrator Sidney Paget.

Sherlock Holmes illustration courtesy of Wikimedia Commons at this link.

By now you will have completed your quick web search on “Sherlock Holmes Johnson & Johnson” without finding anything. So you are now thinking, based on the observable fact that you’re reading a history blog, that it would be perfectly reasonable to conclude that the connection lies somewhere in Johnson & Johnson history.  But where?  To find it, you would have to go back to the inspiration for the founding of Johnson & Johnson: Sir Joseph Lister.

What many people may not know is that Sherlock Holmes, with his extraordinary eye for detail and ability to pull well-reasoned deductions seemingly out of thin air, was based in good part on a real person, a colleague of Lister’s named Dr. Joseph Bell.

Bell was a surgeon and a professor at the University of Edinburgh Medical School and, in the 1870s, he had a young medical student named Arthur Conan Doyle.  (The Sherlock Holmes online site says that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was only 17 years old when he met Dr. Bell!)

Photo of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by Herbert Rose Barraud 1893. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons at this link.

According to Conan Doyle, Bell had a reputation in Edinburgh for being able to observe patients for a few moments, and then tell those patients what they did for a living, where they were from, where they had been and what they had done  recently. To his students, it seemed like wizardry.  This article gives a vivid eyewitness description of Dr. Bell and his methods.

So how did Bell do it?  He used observation, attention to detail and a vast store of knowledge – what today we would refer to as observation based on scientific method.  Bell cultivated those abilities because he believed that heightened powers of observation were essential for diagnosing illnesses.  In the late 1800s, before modern diagnostic tools and technology, diagnosis was largely dependent on the observational powers and knowledge of the physician.  Conan Doyle gave those traits to Sherlock Holmes, even going so far as to model Holmes’ physical description on Dr. Bell.  Like the fictional Holmes, Bell was tall and thin, with an angular face and an energetic manner. Bell, for whom the young Conan Doyle also worked as an assistant, was not just a colleague of Sir Joseph Lister, he was also an early adopter of Lister’s sterile surgery.

Sir Joseph Lister: the connection between sterile surgery, Sherlock Holmes and Johnson & Johnson. Photo from our archives.

Bell and Lister worked together at The Royal Edinburgh Infirmary.  Bell had come from a family of surgeons and, while he was still training as a surgeon, he worked as an assistant to Dr. James Syme, who would become Lister’s father-in-law. At that time, Lister was a house surgeon working with Dr. Syme in Edinburgh, and he was engaged in his research that would lead to the use of carbolic acid as a sterilizing agent to do the first antiseptic surgery.

Historic surgery image, from our archives.

Bell remained at the Royal Edinburgh Infirmary as a surgeon, and was one of the first surgeons to embrace Lister’s antiseptic surgery.  Bell was a strong proponent of hospital cleanliness, and even went one step further than Lister:

“Although Lister wore the same fashionable swallow tail coat from one operation to the next; Bell rolled up the sleeves of his immaculate white shirt and scrubbed his hands. His career spanned the era of “antiseptic surgery” from 1866 until the introduction of steam sterilization in the 1890s.”  [Was the real Sherlock Holmes a pediatric surgeon? By John Raffensperger, Journal of Pediatric Surgery (2010) 45, 1567–1570, at]

By the way, industrial steam sterilization -- to sterilize our mass produced sterile surgical dressings and sutures -- was developed by Johnson & Johnson. Interestingly enough, in a case of life imitating art, Dr. Bell did try his hand at forensic medicine and assisted in some criminal investigations – as a result of the fame that came his way because he was a model for Sherlock Holmes.  Because of that, he is considered a pioneer of forensic science.

The first Johnson & Johnson price list, 1887. Published the same year as the first Sherlock Holmes story.

The first Sherlock Holmes story was published in 1887, just a year after the founding of Johnson & Johnson, and the same year that we published our first comprehensive price list.  What the new fictional detective and the new company had in common (besides the connection to Sir Joseph Lister) was a basis in science, in observation, and in applying science to solving problems. Just as Sherlock Holmes translated the Victorian progress in science into forensic methods to solve cases in Conan Doyle’s stories, so did Johnson & Johnson translate that same progress in science into products to help advance sterile surgery and health care.

So the next time you’re reading a Sherlock Holmes story or watching Holmes on film or on television, you’ll know that he has a…well, elementary connection to the founding and early years of Johnson & Johnson.

Next post:  Letters from Sir Joseph Lister and a history of the Ethicon business in Scotland from the first-ever guest blogger on Kilmer House!

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