Sunday, June 22, 2014

Elementary, My Dear Watson

My son introduced me to the BBC series SHERLOCK (available on Netflix) and I was immediately hooked. We quickly watched all the available episodes and anxiously awaited the most recent season with great anticipation. Upon its arrival we were disappointed only by the small number of episodes (more! Please!). Anyway, the TV series reignited my love for the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and so I recently purchased the complete set of crime mysteries in two volumes (containing four novels and fifty-six short stories). I hadn’t read the original Holmes mysteries since my teen years, and while enjoying The Sign of Four I noticed something that went under my radar the first time I read it so many years ago:
     We clambered up through the hole [in the ceiling]. Holmes turned his light once more upon the footsteps in the dust.
     “I wish you particularly to notice these footmarks,” he said. “Do you observe anything noteworthy about them?”
     “They belong, “ I said, “to a child or a small woman.”
     “Apart from their size, though. Is there nothing else?”
     “They appear to be much as other footmarks.”
     “Not at all. Look here! This is the print of a right foot in the dust. Now I make one with my naked foot beside it. What is the chief difference?”
     “Your toes are all cramped together. The other print has each toe distinctly divided.”
     “Quite so. That is the point. Bear that in mind…”
A few pages later the mystery of the footprints is considered further. Says Holmes:
     “Now, do consider the data. Diminutive footmarks, toes never fettered by boots, naked feet, stone-headed wooden mace, great agility, small poisoned darts. What do you make of all this?”
     “A savage!” I exclaimed. “Perhaps one of those Indians who were the associates of Jonathan Small.” 
That the super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes deduced the effects of footwear on foot anatomy is not particularly amazing, but when we recall that our fictional detective springs from the mind of the mere mortal Conan Doyle our wonder is more deserved. Conan Doyle likely penned those words sometime in 1889 as The Sign of Four was published in February 1890. His astute observation was prolly aided by the fact that Doyle himself was a world-travelling medical doctor as well as the author of fictional crime mysteries. Still, the observation is treated as common-sense by both Holmes and Watson. Some 15 years later, in 1905, Dr. Phil Hoffman would publish a report in The American Journal of Orthopedic Surgery  titled “Conclusions Drawn from a Comparative Study of the Feet of Barefooted and Shoe-wearing Peoples”.  In that study, Hoffman methodically documented the foot deformities (both in anatomy and functionality) caused by footwear. The figure above is taken from this study. To my knowledge, Hoffman’s report is the first rigorous scientific investigation on the impact of shoes on feet, but once again, it appears that Sherlock Holmes was one step ahead of the experts. Sadly, more than 100 years later, most people - including most podiatrists - still don't have a clue that shoes cause so many foot problems and that going barefoot is good and healthy for your feet. Indeed, they firmly believe that shoes are "modern necessities" and feet will suffer irreparable harm without them.


What's more, after all these years the most common deduction about someone who goes barefoot remains "A savage!"


  1. Why do we (i.e. the "developed world") believe that shoelessness in the developing world is a problem we must fix? He (the average Joe living in a developing country) does not know that he compromises the future health of his children by forcing their little feet into shoes.

  2. I cannot agree more - you have said exactly what I was thinking! Without education and study, humans will always default to the most stupid position there is.

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Welcome to The Barefoot Professor blog, intelligent talk about running, walking and living barefoot. I encourage your comments, even if you disagree with me. In this spirit I don't even moderate the comments. However, PLEASE use critical thinking skills when leaving comments, and avoid inflammatory words. Please keep your comments short and to-the-point. THANKS.