Joseph Bell, a Scottish physician and surgeon, was born Dec. 2, 1837. Bell earned his medical degree from the University of Edinburgh medical school and remained there to teach. He subsequently became senior surgeon at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, which is where he encountered the young Arthur Conan Doyle, then pursuing a medical degree of his own. Conan Doyle became Bell’s assistant at the Infirmary in 1879, and he apparently took to heart Bell’s dictum that the key to being a good physician was keen observation. Bell taught that the ability to notice small changes or minor features was often the key to an accurate diagnosis. Bell reportedly tried to teach these principles to his students by examining strangers in front of his classes, trying to determine nationality, background, recent activities, and personal habits from clues in clothing, appearance, or mannerisms.
When Conan Doyle later wrote his first full-length mystery, A Study in Scarlet (1887, in serial form), he introduced the character of Sherlock Holmes, whose acute observing powers were patterned, so it has always been said, after those of Dr. Bell. This was common knowledge even in Bell’s lifetime, and he apparently took considerable delight in being the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. There is one surviving photograph of Bell that shows him wearing a deerstalker cap and a long cloak, but it is hard to know whether Conan Doyle adopted this attire from Bell, or whether perhaps Bell was taking it from Sherlock Holmes (first image).
No one much doubted that Conan Doyle fashioned Sherlock with Joseph Bell in mind, but there had been no hard evidence until 2006, when a letter from Conan Doyle to Bell was discovered, in which Conan Doyle says explicitly: “It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes” (third image). The letter was the centerpiece of an exhibition at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh that year, and the letter was subsequently given, along with 14 boxes of Joseph Bell papers and memorabilia, to the College. This bequest is supposed to have included an oil portrait of Bell, but if it is available online, we cannot locate it.
Fortunately, there survives an albumen print of a young Joseph Bell in the National Galleries of Scotland that is quite striking (second image). A photograph of an older and more thoughtful Bell can be found in the Wellcome Collection (fourth image).
The house where Bell lived in Edinburgh is now the home for the Japanese consulate. There is a plaque by the front entrance that commemorates Bell. It seems worth noting that the plaque was placed there, not by the medical school, or the city fathers, but by the Sherlock Holmes Club of Japan.
Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor emeritus, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to firstname.lastname@example.org.