JAMA 100 Years Ago Section Editor: Jennifer
Reiling, Assistant Editor.
It seems to be the rule, unfortunately, for writers of fiction, when
dealing with medical subjects, to pay no attention to facts. This leads to
the most ludicrous combinations of symptoms and to the descriptions of conditions
that cannot exist. It is an old fault, and a repetition of this fault from
an ordinary writer of fiction would hardly deserve attention here. We have
to regret, however, its occurrence in the recent writings of a celebrated
author who was educated as a medical man. Dr Conan Doyle, in “The Adventure
of the Golden Pince-Nez,” just published, makes Sherlock Holmes say,
in commenting on a pair of glasses that had been found, “You will see,
Watson, that the glasses are convex and of unusual strength.” In another
place, speaking of the owner of these glasses, Holmes says: “Unfortunately
for her, she had lost her glasses in the scuffle, and as she was extremely
short-sighted she was really helpless without them.” To make a short-sighted
person wear convex glasses, even in fiction, is not to be commended. In dealing
with medical subjects, why do not writers of fiction properly inform themselves
and so avoid making such ridiculous errors? Not to do this is slovenliness.
In this particular instance, the result of the neglect of attention to facts
is unusually unfortunate, for it involves our friend, the famous detective,
and also his friend, Dr Watson; and this involvement shows them in a very
unenviable light—they are shown to be weak where they should be strong—for
Mr. Holmes appears as a poor observer and Dr Watson as a poorly informed medical
man. Holmes calls attention to the physical characteristics of the myope,
and speaks of the convex glasses which had been used to counteract short-sightedness.
Had this detective been a good observer of people he would have known that
concave glasses go with such physical characteristics, and had Dr Watson been
a well-posted physician, he would have set his friend straight as regards
the kind of glasses used for correcting myopia. We can agree with Mr. Sherlock
Holmes that it would be difficult to name any article which affords a finer
field for inference than a pair of glasses, but one is very apt to go wrong
if he infers from a pair of convex glasses that the owner is short-sighted.
MEDICAL ERRORS IN FICTION.. JAMA. 2004;292(21):2668. doi:10.1001/jama.292.21.2668-b