Sherlock Holmes, The Original, Dead

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Sherlock Holmes, The Original, Dead is an article published in The New-York Times on 5 october 1911.

Obituary of Dr. Joseph Bell.

Sherlock Holmes, The Original, Dead

The New-York Times (5 october 1911)

Dr. Bell, Scottish Surgeon, Was Reputed Prototype of Conan Doyle's Famous Detective.


Writer Greatly Impressed by His Old Tutor's Clear, Scientific Thinking — Employed "Deductive Methods."

Special Cable to THE NEW YORK TIMES.

LONDON, Oct. 4. — Dr. Joseph Bell, the distinguished Scottish surgeon, who was reputed to be the original of the detective character of Sherlock Holmes, died to-day at his home, Mauricewood, Milton Bridge, Midlothian. He was born in Edinburgh in 1837, and was an instructor of Conan Doyle at Edinburgh. His hobby was the study of mysterious crimes.

Sir Conan Doyle told your correspondent this afternoon at his home at Crowborough, a charming residence in the Sussex hills, how Dr. Bell came to suggest the character of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle served under Bell in Edinburgh for several months and was greatly struck by his clear, scientific thinking and his marvelous power of detecting disease.

"I always thought," Mr. Doyle said, "what a fine brain like his could have done in detecting crime. Although Dr. Bell had always been one of my closest friends, I had not seen him recently. In fact, the last time was in 1900, at Edinburgh, when he supported me in my political campaign. He was a brilliant surgical operator, and I believe he was practicing up to the last.

"Beyond this I can say very little of Bell, for I never met him in his own house, and really only knew him as my professor. As such I shall always see him very clearly. His stiff, bristling, iron-gray hair, his clear, half-humorous, half-critical gray eyes, his eager face and 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 humor and remarkable command of vernacular, into which he easily fell when addressing patients."

Dr. Joseph Bell, the instructor in surgery at the University of Edinburgh, after whom Sir A. Conan Doyle, the novelist, drew the famous character, Sherlock Holmes, was the son of a surgeon. He married Edith Katherine Murray, the daughter of the Hon. James Erskine Murray, in 1865. His wife died nine years later, but he has two daughters. He was educated at the Edinburgh Academy and University, and then went through the ordinary course of a hospital surgeon at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, from dresser to senior surgeon and consulting surgeon.

Dr. Bell was editor of the Edinburgh Medical Journal for twenty-three years. He published " Manual of Surgical Operations " and " Notes on Surgery For Nurses." He belonged to the University and Edinburgh Clubs. and his favorite pastimes were fishing and shooting. He lived at 2 Melville Crescent, in Edinburgh, and had a country place at Mauricewood, Milton Bridge, Midlothian, where he was a Justice of the Peace. He was also a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons.

Dr. Bell was one of Sir A. Conan Doyle's instructors at the University of Edinburgh, where the novelist was educated, in the early eighties. He had a singular genius for noting details and of forming a chain of circumstantial evidence from them, which gave Conan Doyle his first suggestion of his now famous character.

A theory which Dr. Bell constantly advanced was that any really good doctor ought to be able to tell before a patient fairly sat down just about what was the matter with him or her. With women especially he could frequently tell what they were going to complain about before they had uttered a sound. He constantly impressed on his students — Conan Doyle among them — the vast importance of seeming trifles.

"The great majority of people of incidents and of cases," he once told his class, "resemble each other in the main and larger features. Most men have apiece a head, two arms, a mouth, a nose, and a certain number of teeth. But it is the droop of an eyelid or whatnot which differentiates men."

Dr. Bell would illustrate to his class his mode of procedure by giving one or two instances to prove the successful application of his theory. These instances were strongly suggestive of the methods which Sherlock Holmes was later described as employing.

"Once," he said, "a man walked into the room where I was instructing students and his case seemed to be a very simple one. I was talking about what was wrong with him. 'Of course, gentlemen,' I happened to say, he has been a soldier in a Highland Regiment and probably a bandsman.' I pointed out the swagger in his walk suggestive of the piper; while his shortness told me that if he had been a soldier he had probably beer a bandsman. In fact, he had the whole appearance of a man in one of the Highland regiments. The man turned out to be nothing but a shoemaker, and had never been in the army in his lift. This was rather a floorer, but being absolutely certain I was right, and seeing something was up, I did a pretty cool thing.

"I told two of the strongest clerks, or dressers to remove the man to a side room and detain him till I came. I next had him stripped and, under the left breast. I instantly detected a little blue 'D' branded on his skin. He was a deserter. That was the way they used to mark them in the Crimean days and i later, although it is not permitted now. The reason of his evasion was at once clear.

"Conan Doyle," Dr. Bell continued, "was one of the best students I ever had. He was exceedingly interested always in everything connected with diagnosis, and was never tired of trying to discover all these little details one looks for. I recollect that he was, once much amused when a patient walked in and sat down. 'Good morning, Pat,' I said, for it was impossible not to see that the patient was an Irishman. 'Good morning, Your Honor,' he answered. Did you like your walk over the links to-day as you came in from the south side of the town?' I asked. 'Yes,' said Pat, 'Did Your Honor see me?' Well, Conan Doyle could not see how I knew that, absurdly simple as it was. On a showery day, such as it had been, the reddish clay at the bare parts of the links adheres to the boot and a tiny part is bound to remain. There is no such clay anywhere else around the town for miles. This and one or two similar instances excited Doyle's keenest interest and set him experimenting himself, with very brilliant results, as you know."

One day, in the presence of his class, Dr. Bell said to a patient who had come to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary for treatment:

"Gentlemen, we have here a man who is either a corkcutter or a slater. If you will only use your eyes for a moment you will be able to define a slight hardening — a regular callous gentlemen — on one side of his forefinger and a thickening on the outside of his thumb, a sure sign that he follows the one occupation or the other."