Dr. Bell

Dr. Joseph Bell
Dr. Joseph Bell

Literary scholars generally agree that the main inspiration for the character of Sherlock Holmes was Dr. Joseph Bell, Conan Doyle’s professor of clinical surgery at Edinburgh University.  A distinguished physician and educator, Bell was personal surgeon to Queen Victoria whenever she was in Scotland and honorary surgeon to Edward VII.   Bell published several important medical textbooks as well as numerous journal articles, and for twenty-three years served as editor of the Edinburgh Medical Journal.  As Martin Booth points out in his biography of Conan Doyle, The Doctor and the Detective, Bell was one of the most popular professors at the university and his lectures were usually packed. 

Book cover of Martin Booth’s The Doctor and the Detective
Book cover of Martin Booth’s The Doctor and the Detective

According to Booth, Bell was “a sparse and lean man with the long and sensitive fingers of a musician, sharp grey eyes twinkling with shrewdness… an angular nose with a chin to match…and a high-pitched voice. “  He was a “widely read amateur poet, a competent raconteur, a keen sportsman, a naturalist and a bird-watcher” as well as “a good shot.”  But his genius was as a diagnostician, for Bell believed that a doctor should use all his senses to find the cause of  illness.  “Do not just look at a patient, he advised, but feel him, probe him, listen to him, smell him.”

Conan Doyle served as Bell’s clerk at the Royal Infirmary’s open clinic in 1878.  Bell led students on rounds, dazzling them with his ability to deduce facts, both medical and personal, from seemingly unremarkable details.  For instance, Bell stated that a female patient with soft hands but brawny arms was most certainly a laundress.  In another instance, a man’s address combined with the callused ball of his thumb indicated to Bell that the man was a sail-maker because he lived on a street near the docks and sail-makers typically have calloused thumbs from working needles through heavy canvas.

One day a female patient arrived at the clinic with muddy boots, carrying a child’s coat, and a toddler in tow.  She complained of a rash on her right hand.  Bell concluded from the woman’s accent that she was from Fife and that she had walked a certain road to get to the clinic because of the color of the clay on her boots.  He believed that she had dropped off an older child on her way, because the coat she carried was too big for the toddler.  As for the skin condition on her hand, he deduced that she was right-handed and went on to say that she worked at the linoleum factory in her town where she must have come into contact with the caustic chemicals used to make linoleum.  One can imagine Bell turning to his clerk and smugly uttering, “Elementary, my dear Conan Doyle.”

In A Study in Scarlet,  Conan Doyle has his detective echoing Bell’s method when he says that “by a man’s finger-nails, by his coat sleeve, by his boot, by his trouser-knees, by his expression, by his shirt-cuffs—by each of these things a man’s calling is plainly revealed.”   The great detective uses this method throughout the Sherlock Holmes stories.  In A Study in Scarlet, for example, Holmes explains to Dr. Watson the reasoning that led him to conclude that a man of their acquaintance had recently been in Afghanistan:

“Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man.  Clearly an army doctor then.  He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair.  He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly.  His left arm has been injured.  He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner.  Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded.  Clearly in Afghanistan.”

The parallels between Conan Doyle’s creation and Bell in style and intellect are undeniable, but authors of fiction rarely model their characters on one source exclusively.  Influences and inspiration usually come from several sources, and Sherlock Holmes is no exception.  Rather than a thinly disguised portrait of the renowned surgeon of Edinburgh, Sherlock Holmes contains additional elements, both real and fictional.

1. Sherlock Holmes

2. Dr. Bell

3. Poe & the French Connection

4. Elementary, My Dear Watson

5. Bibliography

6. The Author

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