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Sherlock Holmes

Joseph Bell, a Model for Sherlock Holmes

Doyle partly based the character of Sherlock Holmes on Dr Joseph Bell (1837-1911), professor of clinical surgery at Edinburgh University. As a young medical student in the 1870s, Doyle worked for Dr Bell as his out-patient clerk in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Like Sherlock Holmes, Bell was lean and dark, with piercing grey eyes and a nose like an eagle's beak. He also had astonishing powers of observation and deduction.

Joseph Bell Portrait
Joseph Bell
© Roger-Viollet / Topfoto/TopFoto.co.uk
Joseph Bell was often able to diagnose patients before they had said a word about their symptoms. He could even guess their occupation. On one occasion, witnessed by Doyle, the doctor announced that a new patient was a recently discharged non-commissioned officer, who had been serving in a Highland regiment stationed in Barbados. Bell explained to his medical students, "You see, gentlemen, the man was a respectful man but did not remove his hat. They do not in the army, but he would have learned civilian ways had he been long discharged. He has an air of authority and is obviously Scottish. As to Barbados, his complaint is elephantiasis, which is West Indian and not British."

Sherlock Holmes has similar powers of deduction. At his very first meeting with Dr Watson, in A Study In Scarlet, he says to his amazed companion, "You have been in Afghanistan I perceive." He has deduced this from Watson's medical air, military bearing, tanned skin and stiff left arm. Holmes asks, "Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and get his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan." Watson replies, "It is simple enough as you explain it."

A Study in Scarlet cover
© Lilly Library/Indiana University www.indiana.edu/~liblilly
In 1892, Doyle wrote to his former tutor, “It is certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes and though in the stories I have the advantage of being able to place him in all sorts of dramatic positions I do not think that his analytical work is in the least an exaggeration of some effects which I have seen you produce in the out-patient ward."


Murder Rooms

In 2000, the relationship of Doyle and Bell was dramatised in the BBC series, Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings Of Sherlock Holmes, written by David Pirie. Here Dr Bell, played by Sir Ian Richardson, is shown tracking down serial killers in the murky streets of Edinburgh. He is assisted by the young Arthur Conan Doyle (Robin Laing), who plays a similar role to Watson in the Holmes stories.

Joseph Bell would certainly have made a fine detective. But, despite the BBC series, there is no evidence that he really investigated crimes. Nor was he a violin-playing master of disguises who drugged himself with cocaine when he had no cases to work on. Sherlock Holmes is much more than a portrait of Dr Joseph Bell.