"…and the possessor of a favourite dog, which I should describe roughly as being larger than a terrier and smaller than a mastiff."
Conan Doyle introduces a dog into the story to pique the reader's curiosity about the "Hound" of the title.

"Winner of the Jackson prize for Comparative Pathology, with essay entitled 'Is Disease a Reversion?' Corresponding member of the Swedish Pathological Society. Author of 'Some Freaks of Atavism' (Lancet, 1882). 'Do We Progress?' (Journal of Psychology, March, 1883)."
These articles all concern Victorian ideas of evolution and heredity, hotly contested by scientists at the time. Conan Doyle was born in 1859, the year Darwin's Origin of Species appeared. By the time Hound was written, Darwin's concept of evolution had been appropriated by the "Social Darwinists," who used it to support a complex array of pseudo-scientific social theories whose origins predated Darwin's work.

"Atavism" describes the recurrence of a trait that has not appeared in several generations, also known as a "throwback." In Conan Doyle's time, when heredity was not well understood, some scientists saw atavism as evidence of a return to an earlier stage of evolution. Criminals were thought to be throwbacks to more "primitive" human traits, and these traits had a Neanderthal-like physical component, as in Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886).

By applying a scientific theory to the realm of philosophy, Social Darwinists justified racism, divisions between rich and poor, and colonialism. Darwin rejected such theories as a misuse of his work. To the well-informed Victorian reader, the titles of Mortimer's articles would plant the subtle suggestion that the "Hound" might be a prehistoric throwback.

   "And now, Dr. James Mortimer—"
   "Mister, sir, MisterŠa humble M.R.C.S."

Member of the Royal College of Surgeons, a degree that allowed a doctor to perform basic procedures and minor surgery. In Victorian times, it was one of the least prestigious medical degrees.

"A dabbler in science, Mr. Holmes, a picker up of shells on the shores of the great unknown ocean."
Mortimer paraphrases a famous line from the memoirs of physicist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727): "I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."

   "I presume that it is Mr. Sherlock Holmes whom I am addressing and not—"
   "No, this is my friend Dr. Watson."

By this time, both Holmes and Watson are famous.

Copyright © 2006 Stanford University. All rights reserved. Stanford, CA 94305, (650)723-2300  l  Terms of Use