Book(ish) - The Real Sherlock Holmes

Susan Omand looks at the life of one of the inspirations behind Sherlock Holmes...

It's amazing the number of people that think that Sherlock Holmes was a real historical figure, rather than a fictional character. Well, in a way, he was.

This is taken from an interview in The Bookman with Arthur Conan Doyle by Raymond Blathwayt in May 1892:

"I [Blathwayt] asked him [Conan Doyle] how on earth he had evolved, apparently out of his own inner consciousness, such an extraordinary person as his detective Sherlock Holmes, with which readers of the Strand, are so familiar. "Oh! but," he cried, with a hearty, ringing laugh—and his is a laugh it does one good to hear — "Oh! But, if you please, he is not evolved out of any one's inner consciousness. Sherlock Holmes is the literary embodiment, if I may so express it, of my memory of a professor of medicine at Edinburgh University, who would sit in the patients' waiting-room with a face like a Red Indian and diagnose the people as they came in, before even they had opened their mouths. He would tell them their symptoms, he would give them details of their lives, and he would hardly ever make a mistake. 'Gentlemen,' he would say to us students standing around, 'I am not quite sure whether this man is a cork-cutter or a slater. I observe a slight callus, or hardening, on one side of his forefinger, and a little thickening on the outside of his thumb, and that is a sure sign he is either one or the other.' His great faculty of deduction was at times highly dramatic. 'Ah!' he would say to another man, 'you are a soldier, a non-commissioned officer, and you have served in Bermuda. Now how did I know that, gentlemen? He came into the room without taking his hat off, as he would go into an orderly room. He was a soldier. A slight authoritative air, combined with his age, shows he was an N.C.O. A slight rash on the forehead tells me he was in Bermuda, and subject to a certain rash known only there.'

"So I got the idea for Sherlock Holmes."

That professor was Dr Joseph Bell.

Born in Edinburgh in 1837 and educated at Edinburgh Academy, Bell, then aged sixteen, enrolled at the University of Edinburgh to study medicine, carrying on a family tradition. Graduating in 1859 he went on to have a successful career, becoming senior surgeon at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, where he started the first training course for nurses in Scotland. He was then appointed as the first Ordinary Surgeon at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in May 1887 and a dedicated children’s surgical ward opened its doors six months later. Bell campaigned for women to be admitted to medical school and also founded, and was vice-president of, the Queen Victoria Jubilee Institute of Nurses. ( Bell served as the personal surgeon to Queen Victoria whenever she visited Scotland).

Joseph Bell is considered a pioneer in forensic pathology. He was one of the first scientists to put an emphasis on close observation, claiming that was the key to forensics and using scientific methods and techniques to investigate crimes. In other words, he was the forefather of CSI.

Joseph Bell was also a lecturer at Edinburgh University. His classes were always filled as students became enamoured by his keen deductive capabilities. His "Method" of a successful diagnosis, he told students, rested on three things: “Observe carefully, deduce shrewdly, and confirm with evidence.” Because of these abilities, and his growing interest in the use of science to solve criminal cases, he started working with police forensic consultant Henry Littlejohn, also cited as an influence on the Holmes character. Together they worked on several high profile cases, including the "Ardlamont Mystery" (yes, they really called it that) and the Trial of Eugene Marie Chantrelle, where a man was charged with poisoning his wife on the evidence of forensics. The man claimed her death was due to coal gas leakage but a post mortem by Bell revealed none of the signs of gas poisoning and chemical analysis of stains on a pillow found traces of opium. Ever Holmesian, Bell did not step into the limelight of publicity and let Littlejohn present their findings to the court. Their use of scientific methods in criminal investigation led to several arrests in other cases and even a few hangings for murder. Legend has it, although this may be apocryphal, that Littlejohn and Bell were sent the files of the Jack the Ripper case by the London police and, having submitted a report wherein they both named the same suspect, the killings stopped. This report has never been traced but it is fun to think that the "real" Sherlock Holmes was involved somehow.

Arthur Conan Doyle was a medical student at the University of Edinburgh from 1876-81 and was Bell's assistant for two of those years. Although never "friendly", Conan Doyle was impressed by Bell's use of deductive reasoning, as detailed in the opening quote from his interview, so this angle of forensic detection was a natural "go to" when Conan Doyle started writing short stories to make ends meet while he practised as a GP. He had also been impressed by Bell’s appearance from his keen eyes and aquiline features, even to the deerstalker hat and caped coat which Bell wore regularly. Indeed the description used by Conan Doyle for Sherlock Holmes so accurately matched the Professor that his friend, and another of Bell's students, a certain Robert Louis Stevenson, wrote from Samoa "Only one thing troubles me. Can this be my old friend Joe Bell?"

Joseph Bell continued practising medicine even after he retired to the country aged 64, in a move echoed by the Holmes character in Conan Doyle's tales. Bell died on 4 October 1911 aged 74 and is buried at the Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh alongside his wife, Edith Katherine Erskine Murray.

On 8 October 2011 a bronze plaque was unveiled at the Consulate General of Japan in Edinburgh by the Japan Sherlock Holmes Club to mark the centenary of Bell's death. This may seem a very unusual place for a plaque but the building is 2 Melville Crescent, Bell's Edinburgh home.

* Just because I can, an interesting trivia footnote. In the 2006 Doctor Who episode "Tooth and Claw", when the Doctor identifies himself as "James McCrimmon," he claims to have studied at the University of Edinburgh under Dr. Bell - I wonder why...?

Image - Wikipedia