JAIC 1997, Volume 36, Number 1, Article 3 (pp. 31 to 48)
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1997, Volume 36, Number 1, Article 3 (pp. 31 to 48)

ALFRED LUCAS: EGYPT'S SHERLOCK HOLMES

MARK GILBERG



3 EGYPT AND THE GOVERNMENT ANALYTICAL LABORATORIES

In 1897 Lucas was placed on extended leave from the civil service after he contracted tuberculosis. A year later he left for Egypt, where he made a complete recovery. Lucas probably chose Egypt as his destination for health reasons, though opportunities for advancement for a young, aspiring civil servant were certainly greater in the British colonies. Cairo at the turn of the century was an exciting, vibrant city, though the rise of Arab nationalism soon made British rule increasingly tenuous (Searight 1969; Cooper 1989; Mostyn 1989). Like many expatriates, Lucas took refuge at the Turf Club, a gentlemen's club for the British in Egypt, though he soon secured a small flat in the suburb of Garden City.

In May 1898, not long after his arrival in Cairo, Lucas joined the Salt Department, which later became the Egyptian Salt and Soda Company. Less than a year later, he accepted another position as a chemist at the Geological Survey Department under the direction of Sir Henry Lyons. There he managed a small chemical laboratory for the analysis of Egyptian minerals located in the gardens of the Public Works Ministry. This move proved most fortuitous, for it was here that Lucas undoubtedly developed his passion for Egyptology, as his duties invariably brought him into contact with ancient monuments and sites. During this time he published a number of important studies on the soils and waters of the Nile as well as the deterioration of building stones in Egypt (Lucas 1902).

In 1912, with the addition of the Assay Office and a small petroleum division, this laboratory became a separate department, referred to as the Government Analytical Laboratories and Assay Office. As head of this laboratory, Lucas assisted the British military authorities on a number of important chemical matters during World War I. For his efforts he received the Order of the British Empire. Egypt subsequently awarded him the Third Order of the Nile and the Fourth Order of Osmania.

As head of this new department, Lucas became somewhat of a local celebrity as an expert government witness on forensic matters. He acquired a reputation as a ballistics and handwriting expert and testified at various criminal proceedings involving firearms and forgeries. One of his colleagues described him as “not an easy witness to bully or browbeat, and his evidence was often vital for either the condemnation or acquittal of the accused” (Ball et al. 1946). The local English newspaper, the Egyptian Gazette(1923d–e), frequently reported Lucas's testimony at various criminal trials, including the so-called Great Conspiracy Trial at which he identified the poison applied to the tip of an arrow used in a murder.

In a more celebrated case, Lucas calculated the trajectory of a bullet that had been accidentally fired by a British soldier from a train, killing a passenger in an adjacent compartment (Edwards 1993). Apparently the bullet deflected off some ironwork in the station before entering through the window and striking the victim. Lucas worked out mathematically where the bullet struck the ironwork and located the actual mark.

Lucas's keen interest in forensic science led him to publish numerous papers on the application of chemistry to criminal investigations. In 1920 he published one of the first English texts on the subject, Legal Chemistry and Scientific Criminal Investigation. This work was expanded into what became a standard textbook on forensic chemistry (Lucas 1921). Subsequent editions frequently drew upon his experience with archaeological materials, which he often used as examples. In his discussion of the decomposition of the human body after death, Lucas frequently referred to Egyptian mummification practices. He also used Egyptian antiquities as examples to illustrate how chemical analysis could be used to establish the authenticity of an antique.

Lucas's forensic work drew critical acclaim both at home and abroad. He received high praise from the eminent medical-legal expert C. A. Mitchell, editor of the Analyst(Mitchell 1920). Excerpts from his book even appeared in the Egyptian Gazette(1922a–e), which referred to him as “the Sherlock Holmes of Egypt.” He probably relished this reputation given his fondness for detective thrillers, particularly the works of Austin Freedman and John Rhode (Brunton 1947). Apparently, many of the authors were his personal friends.


Copyright 1997 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works