Sir Arthur Doyle created the iconic character we know today as Sherlock Holmes: The quick-witted, observation skills that err on the side of a supernatural, private detective. He has been referenced and depicted in countless pieces of literature, film, and television since Doyle’s release of his Sherlock Holmes book series in the late 1800s. While Holmes’ extraordinary observant and deductive abilities are under the unanimous agreement that they require some suspension of belief, Sherlock Holmes was based on a real man with a unique set of observational skills.
Joseph Bell was a Scottish surgeon and university professor at the University of Edinburgh. Born into a family of surgeons, Bell had developed an observant eye for his patients. He would use all of the senses and find minute details that he could conclude a person’s occupation, residence, medical condition, cause of death, or travels. For example, Bell deduced that a patient was a bell-ringer near Tweed based on his accent and the callouses on his hands from the rope. He could also identify a sailor by their walk and identify their tattoos to where they have traveled. His students were constantly in awe of his ability to find these facts based on such small details, who later on would explain his reasoning to his students in a way that made the answer sound obvious. News of Bell’s investigative skills reached the Edinburgh police. They came to Bell for help in solving cases, such as the Ardlamont murder mystery, and an attempt to identify the person behind the Jack the Ripper murders through analyzing handwriting.
From 1876 to 1881, Sir Arthur Doyle attended Bell’s courses at the university and worked under Bell as an assistant during Doyle’s studies, a “Dr. Watson” if you will, to Bell. Like Bell’s other students, Doyle noted his observational skills, as well as his eagle-like nose and face, and the jerky manner in his gait. (Caused by diphtheria Bell contracted from a patient.) Doyle had been in a creative slump in his writings but gained new inspiration from his time spent with Bell. Joseph Bell became the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, his character taking on Bell’s deductive abilities, jerky movements, and unique mannerisms. He was aware of Doyle’s work; Doyle would send him a copy of the Holmes stories once they were published. Bell was flattered by the depiction of him in Doyle’s work, but as the press gave him attention, Bell clarified that he was not Sherlock Holmes: “I hope folk that know me to see another and better side to me than what Doyle saw!”
It is safe today that without the incredible Joseph Bell, and Sir Arthur Doyle working with him during his time at the University of Edinburgh, the beloved Sherlock Holmes would not have been conceived, or at the very least, could not have withstood the test of time with countless interpretations and adaptations of such an iconic character.