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Sherlock Holmes was modelled after Joseph Bell

Dr. Joseph Bell

Author: SherlockExtra - Translator: Revati

Professor Joseph Bell, the real Sherlock Holmes

Joseph Bell was born on the 2nd of December 1837. He became a renowned lecturer of the medical university in Edinburgh, Scotland. He wrote many scientific books and served even Queen Victoria. He was an excellent surgeon, but nowadays he is famous for being the model of Conan Doyle’s character, the world’s most well-known detective, Sherlock Holmes.

Attention in the medical practice

Joseph was the great-grandchild of forensic surgeon Benjamin Bell, who had been regarded as the first surgeon „to practice his profession on a scientific level”. He was an acknowledged lecturer throughout Europe because of his efforts in developing surgery and crime solving. He resolutely believed:”In medical practice it is inevitable to observe the details”. He practised this daily by making diagnosis. His descendant acquired his abilities. Both men successively developed their observing skills by sedulous practice. Joseph Bell reached such an extraordinary level of spotting the details and combinating the facts that it raised him above others in intelligence, and what is more, his environment felt admiration mixed with surprise.

Dr. Benjamin Bell

Bell could tell from the tattoos of sailors where they had sailed. From having a look at a hand he told the profession of its owner. A glance at a face told him whether the person is a drinker or not. Thanks to his observations he knew a lot of information about his patients soon before they talked about themselves. When someone lied to him, the professor explained him the telling signs that revealed the truth.

An extraordinary lecturer

Bell made use of his special knowledge at his lectures too. He got out a bottle with some compound that had an unpleasant taste. He put his finger into it, then licked it off and ordered his students to do the same. In the end he repeated the whole process to the sniffing audience, showing that he put into the bottle one finger and licked off another. With tricks like that he tested the thoughtfulness of the students and at the same time taught them to concentrate better. He became a legend at the university, as his diagnosis was never wrong. His extreme personality and exciting lectures enthralled his students. He had especially great effect on a certain Conan Doyle.

Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes

The eccentric professor impressed everybody, but he specifically captured the imagination of his student, Conan Doyle, who grew up listening to lots of tales. Ten years after they met, the figure of Bell was on paper, as an energetic detective who had extraordinary logic.

Sherlock’s way of thinking and his physique reflected the professor. Holmes had the same dynamic gait, narrow nose, grey eyes, angled chin and high forehead like Bell. The Nobel prize-winning novelist, poet and journalist, the author of The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling read the first Sherlock story, A Study in Scarlet admiringly. When he congratulated Doyle, he asked him:”Isn’t he my old friend, dr. Joe?” - Though Doyle's biography, " A Life in Letters " tells it was another talented writer, Robert Louis Stevenson who spotted that the sleuth is similar to dr. Bell. Stevenson and Doyle attended Edinborough University together.

Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes

Doyle always sincerely undertook that the great detective had been largely inspired by his university teacher. Dr. Bell knew about it and he was very proud of the fact – though sometimes he felt the author sensationalized his abilities.

Doyle gave Holmes the clothes that were characteristic to dr. Bell (the long coat and the deerstalker). So the silhouette of Sherlock became unique and easily recognizable. Due to his long coat he can be seen as the first modern hero having a robe or cape.

Dr. Joseph Bell and Sherlock Holmes

Recommended site: The deerstalker of Sherlock Holmes

The deerstalker of Sherlock Holmes

In his leisure time dr. Joe was a sportsman, wrote poems and studied the behavior of birds. Sherlock also did exercises, and during his country investigations spotted out birds. Interestingly enough in his first portrayal Watson describes Holmes to be a stranger to literature, but it turned out from the novels that the sleuth often cited famous literary works.

Jack the Ripper

Chasing Jack the Ripper

Professor Bell took part in police investigations many times. At his time happened one of the most brutal and notorious series of murder. Prostitutes were gruesomely killed and mutilated. The mass murderer got the nickname Jack the Ripper. Some sources say that Joseph Bell investigated the case. After searching for seven days he summarized his findings in writing. He also named the suspect. It is a mystery what had happened to his notes, only one thing is sure: the dreadful murderer had never been caught.

Professor Bell and other people who inspired Doyle

No doubt that dr. Bell was the main source of inspiration for Doyle to create Holmes – but the author did not simply copy the life of his professor. While dr. Bell was married and had a son, Sherlock had no private life at all – he was neutral to sex urge, he was absorbed in his job and was a lonely genius.

The great detective has subtle knowledge in chemistry. For this characteristic Doyle used his own attainments besides the habits of another professor of his, Sir Robert Christison. Professor Christison was „the master of poisons”, he experimented on different drugs. He was like Perselus Piton. Rumour has it that he tested some dangerous chemicals on himself.

From another popular lecturer, Sir Henry Littlejohn Doyle learned how to make photographs and how to record fingerprints. We also have to mention the friend of dr. Bell, dr. Patrick Heron Watson, who was also a surgeon. Doyle modelled the loyal dr. John Watson after himself, but gave him the last name of Professor Watson. He found him likeable – the professor was a gentleman just like him. Dr. Patrick Heron Watson was also a military doctor, but he served in the Crimean war instead of Afghanistan. Later he made a fantastic career: he became a director and a healer of kings.

Joseph Bell and Sherlock Holmes

The influence of dr. Bell

Joseph Bell died on the 4th of October 1911, aged 73. Many books had been published about his life. In the city of Edinburgh a plaque was inaugurated in honour of him. The Joseph Bell Centre for Forensic Statistics and Legal Reasoning (JBC) in Edinburgh honors the great pathologist and promotes his ideas by applying academic research to the field of criminal justice. An exhibition was held about his relationship with Conan Doyle. BBC made a series about him with the title ’Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes – Ian Richardson portrayed dr. Bell. His personality and the figure of Holmes, whom he inspired, contributed to create the world famous character dr. House. - Recommended article: House M. D. and Sherlock Holmes

Sherlockian Holmesian

Did you know?

In the 1850s hospital circumstances were quite miserable. According to dr. Bell, nurses were almost useless, because they had no training. In the 1860s anaesthetics and antiseptics meant a revolution. This was also the time when Florence Nightingale reformed nursing. Bell calculated that with the introduction of trained nurses the number of patients surviving hospital treatment at least doubled. He was the first surgeon to offer lectures to nurses, and he also wrote a book for them to study which he dedicated to Nightingale. In 1887 she wrote him a letter accepting the dedication.

Florence Nightingale and Dr. Joseph Bell

Sherlockian Holmesian

"Dr. Joseph Bell the real Sherlock Holmes"

Author: SherlockExtra
Translator: Revati

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