WAS SHERLOCK HOLME’S CREATOR INSENSITIVE TO ISSUES OF WOMAN’S INEQUALITY? THE CASE OF THE CONTAGIOUS DISEASE ACT AND ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE

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In 1864, the British Parliament thought they had a problem with many of their Army and Navy boys- it seemed too many of them were getting venereal diseases from prostitutes in specific port towns in England. To combat the issue, the “Contagious Disease Act” was enacted permitting police (and in some cases, scorned men) to seize women who merely appeared to be in the business; neither a warrant or probable cause was required- mere suspicion was sufficient to conduct a “compulsory” inspection of the women- often in crude and degrading fashions. If a woman resisted or refused to submit to such “examinations” often conducted by unskilled men in unsanitary conditions, the women could be locked up in a medical ward or prison for indefinite periods. If they submitted, they were placed in wards until cured (In some cases, there were no cures). The prohibitions applied only to women, the soldiers were immune from such “arrests”. Moreover, owing to the low level of suspicion required to support the detention, the law was frequently abused by men who had a beef with a particular women- it was a way to get back at someone. Many of the “prostitutes” were young girls who had been abandoned or otherwise abused with no other means of support. At about this time, scientists were fervently searching for ways to confront deadly infectious diseases including tuberculosis, aka “consumption”. Vaccinations were made compulsory and average citizens started to revolt on privacy grounds- many felt the government was being too evasive especially where the promised “cures” and “remedies” were not proving to be effective. Moreover, several woman rights activists rallied against the laws which clearly singled out the young and desperate girls for punishment and exempted the male soldiers from blame. Ultimately, the “Contagious Disease Act” was repealed in 1886. Vaccinations continued. In 1883, Arthur Conan Doyle, Medical doctor and creator of the fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, was a big supporter of compulsory injections and inspections. In support of the “Contagious Disease Act” he stated: “It becomes a matter of public calamity that these Acts should be suspended for a single day, far more for an indefinite period”. He accused his opponents of reverting to the dark ages before the dawn of medical science. I wonder if Doctor Watson would have condoned such inequality for women. At least these days, such practices wouldn’t be considered so “elementary my dear Watson”.

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