Joseph Bell, The Real Sherlock Holmes
Hugh Laurie as Gregory House. Source: (wallpaper.wiki)
Fans of the TV show, House M.D., which aired from 2004 to 2012, might know that the titular character, Dr. Gregory House, was inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous character, Sherlock Holmes. But what many of them don’t know is that Sherlock Holmes was himself inspired by a doctor, specifically a surgeon by the name of Joseph Bell.
Bell was born in Edinburgh on December 2, 1837, to Dr. Benjamin Bell and Cecilia Barbara Craigie. His great-grandfather, also Dr. Benjamin Bell, was a forensic surgeon hailed as the father of the Edinburgh school of surgery. He was famous for saying that “In medical practice, it is inevitable to observe the details.” It would seem that the elder Dr. Bell passed the penchant for details along to his great-grandson.
Joseph Bell was educated at the Edinburgh Academy and went on to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh, where he received his medical degree in 1859 after delivering a dissertation to the Royal Medical Society. After graduating, he became a house surgeon at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary where he worked under James Syme and would later start the first training course for nurses. He became a demonstrator in anatomy at the University of Edinburgh Medical School where he also became a lecturer. He served as editor of the Edinburgh Medical Journal from 1873 to 1896 and was Secretary and Treasurer of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh from 1876 to 1887 when he became its President. He was also Queen Victoria’s personal surgeon, a Justice of the Peace, and a Deputy Lord Lieutenant.
During his lectures at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, Bell often impressed his students with his ability to diagnose patients through the use of his keen observation skills. He was known to pick a random stranger and use these same skills to guess the person’s occupation and recent activities. For example, he could tell where a sailor had traveled by looking at his tattoos and a man’s profession with only a glance at his hands or, in at least one case, by observing the wear on his pants.
In 1877, Arthur Conan Doyle was one of Bell’s students and therefore had the opportunity to witness his powers of deduction. Doyle also served as Bell’s clerk, thus making him Dr. Watson to Bell’s Sherlock Holmes. A particularly memorable example of Bell’s observational skills occurred when Bell was able to take a brief glance at a patient and determine that the patient was a recently discharged non-commissioned officer of the Highland regiment of the army and had been stationed in Barbados. His clues were the fact that the patient did not remove his hat and complained of elephantiasis.
There is no questioning that Bell was the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. Not only did he share his observational skills and powers of deduction, but he also inspired the character’s wardrobe as Bell was known to wear a long coat and a deerstalker hat. However, if further proof is required, one need look no further than the words of Doyle himself. The author once wrote a letter to Bell in which he thanked him and stated “It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes … round the centre of deduction and inference and observation which I have heard you inculcate, I have tried to build up a man.”
Joseph Bell died on October 4, 1911, and was buried next to his wife, Edith Murray, in Edinburgh’s Dean Cemetery. However, his legacy lives on, not only in the Sherlock Holmes books and its many television and film adaptations, but also in his chosen field, with the Joseph Bell Centre for Forensic Statistics and Legal Reasoning, established in 2001 by the University of Edinburgh, Glasgow Caledonian University, and the Lothian & Borders Police Forensic Science Laboratory.