Give me problems…and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation.
—The Sign of Four
Sherlock Holmes was a drug addict. It is quite possible that this simple fact, described as it is in the most austere, clinical language could escape the attentions of even the most scrupulous of readers. For many, the brief interchange that opens The Sign of Four could just as easily pass completely unnoticed, or else its relative paucity quickly subsumed by more prominent or pressing aspects of the narrative. For a small number of Holmes’ most diligent and devoted readers, such a taint on the reputation and flaw in the character of the great detective is cause for much alarm. Several books and articles have centered on Holmes’ penchant for cocaine and morphine, shedding light into the origins and meanings behind Holmes’ apparent dependency on narcotics, and questioning Conan Doyle’s intentions behind saddling the literary hero with such a burden.
Jack Tracy and Jim Berkey’s seminal 1978 book Subcutaneously, My Dear Watson puts to rest the common misconception for the modern reader that Holmes was committing a crime as a result of his use of drugs. While there is no doubt that Conan Doyle meant for his detective to share more characteristics with the criminal classes than the Scotland Yard sleuths who benefited from his deductions, Holmes’ use of cocaine and morphine were not among those illegalities. In fact, the 7% solution of injected cocaine three times a day preferred by Holmes would not even have required a prescription in 1887, when the actions described in The Sign of Four took place, and was, in fact, below the physician’s recommended dosage for the treatment of depression, a malady most closely matching Holmes’ description.
One may also find similarities between Holmes and another intellectual of the time who lauded cocaine’s positive traits as a result of self-experimentation. Sigmund Freud’s papers on cocaine, originally published from 1884 to 1887, were well considered in medical circles at the time and may have been familiar to Conan Doyle, who completed his medical studies in 1885. Writing in the Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine in 1991, J. Thomas Dalby noted that “the most singular aspect of cocaine in the Holmes stories is not Holmes’s habit, but rather Watson’s reaction to it [since]…there was no general medical condemnation of cocaine use in the late 19th century.” Perhaps it was Conan Doyle’s own medical opinions or possible disagreement with Freud’s pronouncements that imbued Watson with the strong condemnation that would, in time, prove so prescient.