Joseph Bell, M.D., F.R.C.S.E., F.R.S.E., J.P.

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Joseph Bell, M.D., F.R.C.S.E., F.R.S.E., J.P. is an article published in the The British Medical Journal on 14 october 1911.

Obituary of Joseph Bell, Arthur Conan Doyle's professor of medicine at Edinburgh University.

Joseph Bell, M.D., F.R.C.S.E., F.R.S.E., J.P.

The British Medical Journal (14 october 1911, p. 954)
The British Medical Journal (14 october 1911, p. 955)
The British Medical Journal (14 october 1911, p. 956)

Deputy Lieutenant, Edinburgh.

Dr. Joseph Bell died at his country house, Mauricewood, Milton Bridge, Midlothian, on October 4th. His health broke down in February last, and although he rallied and was able to be out to enjoy a drive, he did not resume practice. A week or two ago serious heart symptoms recurred, and ended his life.

He was born on December 2nd, 1837, in Edinburgh, educated at the Edinburgh Academy, and afterwards at the University, where he graduated M.D. in 1859, becoming a Licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons in the same year, and a Fellow in 1863. He came of an interesting medical ancestry. The annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh contain the following notes:

252. Benjamin Bell. Entered 5th April, 1771. The well known author of a System of Surgery. His family is not of the same blood with that of John and Charles Bell. (Nos. 277 and 297.) He was married to a sister of Dr. James Hamilton (senior of that name in the Royal College of Physicians), whose portrait is at Heriot's Hospital. Father of Nos. 293 and 315. Died in 1806, act. 57.

293. George Bell. Entered 1st May, 1798. Son of No. 252. In large practice as a surgeon in Edinburgh. Father of No. 365. Surgeon to Royal Infirmary for many year. Died 1832, act. 55. See No. 323.

315. Joseph Bell. Entered 18th October, 1808. Son of No. 252. Father of No. 403. Brother of No. 293. Born 25th November, 1786. Died 1848.

323. Adolphus M'Dowal Ross, M.D. Entered 29th September, 1812. Partner of George Bell (No. 293) whose wife was his sister. He was the medical attendant of Sir Walter Scott. Died 20th October, 1843, act. 52. He married the youngest daughter of David Hume. Professor of Scots Law.

355. Benjamin Bell. Entered 4th July, 1823. Son of No. 293. Born 1802. Died 1843.

403. Benjamin Bell. Entered 20th January, 1835. Born 13th April, 1810. Son of No. 315. Father of No. 560. President of the College 1863-64. Died 13th June, 1883.

580. Joseph Bell, M.D. Entered 3rd February, 1863. Son of No. 403. Born 2nd December, 1837. Lecturer on Surgery, Edinburgh. Surgeon to Royal Infirmary.

So that for something like 150 years, without a break, the Bell family provided members of the medical profession in Edinburgh and Fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. This must be almost a unique history. And the college annals do not give the whole, for there were several other members of the family in the medical profession both in England and Scotland.

To go further back, Dr. Bell's ancestors belonged to Dumfriesshire, where they had been landed proprietors from the beginning of the fifteenth century, and leaders of the Clan Bell in the old Border times.

After taking his M.D. degree at the university of Edinburgh in 1859, Joseph Bell became resident house-surgeon to Professor Syme, and afterwards resident physician to Dr. (afterwards Sir William) Gairdner. In 1858-9 he was one of the Presidents of the Royal Medical Society. For two years he was a demonstrator of anatomy under Goodsir. At the age of 26 he taught classes of systematic and operative surgery. These classes he carried on with great success for fourteen years. In 1878 he was senior acting-surgeon to the Royal Infirmary, and then became a lecturer of clinical surgery. Before this he had acted as Professor of Clinical Surgery in the University during Syme's illness. For this he was specially well qualified, as he had been Syme's special assistant for some five years. He passed through the ordinary course of a hospital surgeon at the Royal Infirmary, from dresser to senior surgeon and consulting surgeon. He always had a warm affection for the infirmary, and took a great interest in the well-being of the nursing staff. He was the first surgeon to give systematic instruction to the nurses. He was one of the originators of the Royal Edinburgh Hospital for Incurables, and he remained surgeon to that institution to the end of his life. For many years he was surgeon to the Royal Edinburgh Hospital for Sick Children, and in 1893, in the first volume of the Edinburgh Hospital Reports, he published a paper on "Five Years' Surgery in the Royal Hospital for Sick Children." In the same volume he published an extremely interesting paper on "The Surgical Side of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, 1854-1892; the Progress of a Generation." He was Surgeon to the Edinburgh Eye Infirmary; Vice-President of the Queen Victoria Jubilee Institute for Nurses, as well as Chairman of the Executive Committee. For many years he was an Examiner to the Royal College of Surgeons, later Treasurer and President. He had held the office of President of the Edinburgh Medico-Chirurgical Society, and for twenty-three years, from 1873 to 1896, he was editor of the Edinburgh Medical Journal. In 1895 he was elected by the General Council of the university as one of the assessors on the University Court, an office which he held for many years and up to the time of his death, giving invaluable help on many subjects.

In addition to the two papers already referred to, he was the author of A Manual of the Operations of Surgery, the seventh edition of which was published in 1892; Notes on Surgery for Nurses, the sixth edition of which was published in 1906. In the Edinburgh Medical Journal of 1863 he had a paper, "On Nomenclature of Scapulo-humeral Dislocations;" and in 1867, in the same journal, papers on "Pulsating Tumours of the Orbit" and "Pulsating Tumour in Orbit Cured by Ligature of the Common Carotid." In 1897 he Was President of the Edinburgh Harveian Society, and on May 14th of that year gave a charming oration. One paragraph of that oration is worth quoting:

Pardon a word of family vanity which has been an encouragement. My great-grandfather, Benjamin Bell, was an original member 115 years ago. My grandfather, Joseph, was a guest 60 years ago, and my father, Benjamin, was president this day 30 years ago. It is a wonder to me you have not wearied of such a family.

The whole oration is full of interest.

In politics he was a Conservative, was Chairman of the University Conservative Association, and as such signed the nomination paper of Sir Robert Finlay, the member of Parliament for the Universities of Edinburgh and St. Andrews.

He was Senior Elder of St. George's United Free Church, and was never absent from morning service.

In 1865, he married Edith Catherine, daughter of the Hon. James Erskine Murray. She died in 1874. By her he had one son and two daughters. The son died some years ago after an operation. He was an officer in the Seaforth Highlanders. Dr. Bell was never the same man after his son's death. Both his slaughters are married to officers.

His recreations mere fishing and shooting. He was member of the University Club, Edinburgh; an original member of the Round Table Club, and its first Secretary. This club was founded in December, 1868, and of its original members, twelve in all, only four survive. He was also a member of the "Aesculapian" Club, founded in 1773; and of the Medico-Chirurgical Club, founded in 1822.

Dr. Bell was a marked figure in Edinburgh. Nearly to the end of his life he retained his buoyant and even boyish disposition. He was bright, cheerful, and happy. He had many admiring friends. He was a kindly man, and, unknown to all but a few, he did very many fine and helpful actions to those in trouble. Till his illness in February last he carried on a large family practice.

He was a brilliant and impressive teacher. He missed nothing as a clinician. Among his pupils in the Edinburgh Royal infirmary was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who, it is generally believed, took him as the prototype of the famous detective of the "Sherlock Holmes" stories. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle says of his old teacher:

Personally I can say very little of Dr. Joseph Bell, for I have never met him in his own house, and really only know him as my professor. As such I shall always see him very clearly, his stiff, bristling, iron-grey hair, his clear, half-humorous, half-critical grey eyes, his eager face, awl swarthy skin. He had a very spare figure, as I remember him, and walked with a jerky energetic gait, his head carried high, and his arms swinging. He had a dry humour, and a remarkable command of the vernacular, into which he easily fell when addressing his patients. His skill as a surgeon and his charm as a lecturer are, of course, proverbial.

As a doctor he was greatly beloved by his patients, in whatever rank of life they were. He lightened their burdens and cheered their lives by his fine sympathy and brightness and by his encouraging words. His nature was essentially bright, happy, and youthful. He will be long missed by a wide circle of friends and patients.

His funeral took place from St. Georges United Free Church on the afternoon of October 7th. There was a large attendance of the office bearers of his church, of the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons of the University, of the Royal Infirmary, of the Longmore Hospital, of the Queen Victoria's Jubilee Institute of Nurses, of army veterans, of Children's Hospital, and of the public.