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Inspection Report III

Dr. Joseph Bell,
a Model for
Sherlock Holmes

Tom McQuain

The Diogenes Club:  Link to the Norwood Building Inspectors:  The Sherlock Holmes Society of Charleston, West Virginia

In the spirit of "the Red Headed League", I have copied the following statement from the Encyclopaedia Britannica; "The character of Holmes…partly derives from a teacher at Edinburgh noted for his deductive reasoning" [The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan, (15th ed. 1978)]

Specifically, as stated in Conan Doyle, Portrait of an Artist, by Julian Symons (The Mysterious Press 1979) at pages 19,20;

   "Conan Doyle always said the model for these deductive skills was Dr. Joseph Bell, surgeon at  Edinburgh Infirmary, and one of the professors at Edinburgh University when Conan Doyle was a    medical student, In appearance Bell was thin and dark, with piercing gray eyes and a narrow  aquiline nose, so that he had some resemblance to the imaged Sherlock Holmes. [Doyle] used the Bell deductive approach when he began to write the stories. Dr. Bell modestly said that Conan Doyle had exaggerated his powers"

Consistent with the above is Conan Doyle, A Biographical Solution, by Ronald Pearsall (St. Martin’s Press 1977) at pages 10,56, where it is stated " Joseph Bell, surgeon at the Edinburgh Infirmary, was transmuted into Sherlock Holmes. Bell considered that Doyle’s medical education had taught him to be observant" Moreover, the following may be found in an article entitled The Man Who Hated Sherlock Holmes, The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle: "[Doyle] then went on to
study medicine at Edinburgh University, where he came under the influence of Dr. Joseph Bell, the model for Holmes, a surgeon who astonished his students with uncanny displays of observation and deduction. "See, The Weekly Standard – August 30 / September 6, 1999, at page 31.

Finally, the following account of Dr. Bell is set forth in an essay entitled " The Original of Sherlock Holmes" by Dr. Harold Emery Jones:

"All Edinburgh medical students remember Joseph Bell – Joe Bell – as they called him. Always alert, always up and doing, nothing ever escaped that keen eye of his. He read both patients and students like so many open books. His diagnosis was almost never at fault.
   "This, gentlemen" announced [Professor Bell], "contains a very potent drug. To the taste it is   intensely bitter. It is most offensive to the sense of smell. But I want you to test it by smell and  taste; and, as I don’t ask anything of my students which I wouldn’t be willing to do myself, I will taste it before passing it round"

Here he dipped his finger in the liquid, and placed it in his mouth. The tumbler was passed round. With wry and sour faces the students followed the Professor’s lead. One after another tasted the liquid; varied and amusing were the grimaces made. The tumbler, having gone the round, was returned to the Professor.
     "Gentlemen", said he, with a laugh, " I am deeply grieved to find that not one of you has developed this power of perception, which I so often speak about; for if you watched me closely, you would have found that, while I placed my forefinger in the medicine, it was the middle finger which found its way into my mouth"

These methods of Bell impressed Doyle greatly at the time. The impression was a lasting one.  This essay was found in an old volume of selected works of Arthur Conan Doyle. See Conan Doyle’s Best Books – In Three Volumes Illustrated, B.F. Collier & Son, Publishers – Sherlock Holmes Ed. (__?__).

In summary, although Dr. Bell may not have been the only model for Sherlock Holmes, he seems to have been the primary one. Thanks to Dr. Bell, at least in part, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made deduction and the power of perception central to the Sherlock Holmes stories.

Presented by
Tom McQuain, "The Disappearance of Lady Francis Carfax"
The Norwood Building Inspectors
The Sherlock Holmes Society of Charleston, West Virginia
March 16, 2000

Copyright 2000, Tom McQuain, All Rights Reserved

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