The Real Life Inspiration for Sherlock Holmes

Did Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes out of thin air? Elementary, my dear Neatoramanauts, he did not. Meet the real life inspiration for Sherlock Holmes: Dr. Joseph Bell, a physician and lecturer at the medical school of the University of Edinburgh.

Conan Doyle met Bell in 1877 while he was studying to be a physician. Later, Bell would appoint Conan Doyle as his clerk, which allowed the author plenty of opportunities to learn about Bell's legendary deductive abilities (somewhat similar to playing Dr. Watson to Bell's Sherlock Holmes.)

Bell emphasized the importance of close observation when making medical diagnosis - to demonstrate this, he would often pick a stranger and deduce the man's occupation and recent activities by observation alone.

In the book Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle, author Daniel Stashower illustrated Bell's observation skills: Bell was able to tell that a man was an alcoholic by observing that he habitually carried a flask in the inside breast pocket of his coat, and that another man was a cobbler by seeing that the inside of the knee of the man's trousers was worn (that's where the man had rested the lapstone - a tool used by cobblers to condition leather). Bell was able to discern different accents to deduce a man's origin. He was also able to tell the difference between hand calluses of a carpenter from a mason, and the difference in the walking gait of a solider and a sailor.

Conan Doyle recounted this celebrated example of Bell's abilities when a patient whom Bell had never seen or talked to before came forward:

"Well, my man," Bell said, after a quick glance at the patient, "you've served in the army."

"Aye, sir," the patient replied.

"Not long discharged?"

"No, sir."

"A Highland regiment?"

"Aye, sir."

"A non-com officer?"

"Aye, sir."

"Stationed at Barbados?"

"Aye, sir."

Bell turned to his bewildered students. "You see, gentlemen," he explained, "the man was a respectful man but did not remove his hat. They do not in the army, but he would have learned civilians ways had he been long discharged. He has an air of authority and he is obviously Scottish. As to Barbados, his complaint is elephantiasis, which is West Indian and not British, and the Scottish regiments are at present in that particular island."

For Bell, observation skills are integral to become a great doctor. "In teaching the treatment of disease and accident," he said, "all careful teachers have first to show the students how to recognize accurately the case. The recognition depends in great measure on the accurate and rapid appreciation of small points in which the diseased differs from the healthy state. In fact, the student must be taught to observe."

Conan Doyle acknowledged Bell's influence in the creation of Sherlock Holmes, when he wrote a letter to his old university professor, "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."


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