Sherlock Holmes, arguably one of the most famous detectives in literary history, first appeared in print in 1887. The brainchild of Scottish author and physician Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes is, as we all know, renowned for his incredible use of logic, his flair for disguise and his astute use of forensic science.
It’s this last ability, which gives us a clue to his inspiration. For Holmes, who featured in four novels (A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Valley of Fear) as well as fifty-six short stories, was in fact based upon a doctor. Dr. Joseph Bell, lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, was know for his observational skills and superior intelligence, but most importantly, for literary history, he was a close associate of Conan Doyle.
In fact, the author served as the good doctor’s clerk at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, where he was famed for being able to observe a man and instantly deduce things he could not possibly have known. Bell even advised the police in several investigations in Scotland, including the Ardlamont Mystery, and testified as an expert witness in the ensuing murder trial. It was this incredible expertise, which gained him a reputation as a pioneer in forensic pathology.
This knowledge of sciences is immediately obvious in Dr. Watson’s summary list of Sherlock Holmes’s strengths and weaknesses, in the first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet.
“1. Knowledge of Literature: Nil.
2. Knowledge of Philosophy: Nil.
3. Knowledge of Astronomy: Nil.
4. Knowledge of Politics: Feeble.
5. Knowledge of Botany: Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium, and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening.
6. Knowledge of Geology: Practical but limited. Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After walks has shown me splashes upon his trousers, and told me by their colour and consistence in what part of London he had received them.
7. Knowledge of Chemistry: Profound.
8. Knowledge of Anatomy: Accurate but unsystematic.
9. Knowledge of Sensational Literature: Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.
10. Plays the violin well.
11. Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.
12. Has a good practical knowledge of British law.”
Whether these other attributes, or lack of them, were also characteristics of Dr Bell is unsure. However, there’s no doubt how central Bell was to Conan Doyle’s detective. In a letter by Conan Doyle to Dr Bell, which went on display in Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in 2011, the writer states: “It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes.”
Conan Doyle is not the only one who owes Dr Bell a debt of gratitude. So do the millions of people who’ve enjoyed the 226 films featuring Sherlock Holmes, which according to IMDb makes him the most filmed fictional character in history.
We’re sure Dr. Watson would have approved.