The deadly condition named for a Sherlock Holmes story

Illustration for article titled The deadly condition named for a Sherlock Holmes story

One of the most beloved tales of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle provided the name for a real medical effect. The Baskerville Effect doesn't require any hounds, but it can be just as deadly. We'll take a look at the experiment that proved that Doyle's murders were more likely than you might think.


Those of you who don't want to be spoiled for a hundred and ten year old story, stop reading. The Hound of the Baskervilles has Sherlock Holmes investigating his most seemingly supernatural crime ever. A respectable old British family has supposedly been cursed to be killed by a giant demon hound. The latest lord has been found dead by the front gate, untouched by surrounded by the prints of a giant hound. The new heir is moving in and feeling a little nervous.

The fact that the dead man was not ripped to pieces made the entire thing look supernatural, but Holmes dismissed the possibility and worked out that a hidden heir-apparent was was literally scaring people to death using the belief in the legend and some phosphorescent paste and a large dog that he trained to run after, but not attack, the men.


A bit less than a century later, some scientists wanted to see whether or not people could be scared to death. They looked for a likely belief, and found it in the Chinese and Japanese idea that the number four is unlucky. Obviously, finding a random sampling of subjects and attempting to scare them to death would be unethical, so the scientists reluctantly turned their attention to existing death certificates. The scientists looked and Japanese and Chinese death certificates, and those of white Americans as the control. They found that while white Americans saw no major peak for cardiac deaths, Japanese and Chinese cardiac deaths peaked on the fourth of the month every month.

Why? The stress and worry of approaching an unlucky day actually caused people to have heart attacks. The fourth of every month acted the same way a Sherlock Holmes murderer did, and so the phenomenon was called The Baskerville Effect. Worry actually can kill. So don't worry, or you will die.

Via BMJ and NCBI.

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The villain in the story wasn't trying to scare people to death and didn't train the dog not to attack; the man who died in the path without a mark on him had a heart attack and was dead by the time the dog got to him, and per Conan Doyle's assertion, the dog didn't bother with a dead body. The same dog did attack the next guy, so Holmes and Watson shot it to death to save the man's life.

The villain did, however, hope that the next heir would be scared away by the legend and not arrive to claim his inheritance. But when the heir did show up, he sicced the dog on him.