Fiction imitates real life in a case of true inspiration

The man who inspired Dr Holmes was so astute that the police enlisted his help to catch the ripper, writes Robert Hume.

THE unmistakable silhouette of Sherlock Holmes, with his curly pipe and deerstalker hat, is familiar the world over. Much less well known, however, is the fact that Holmes is based largely on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s university teacher, Dr Joseph Bell, who died 100 years ago in October, 1911.

Bell was born in 1837 into a family of surgeons, and at eighteen accepted a place at the Edinburgh Medical School. There he was taught how to observe patients very closely; and it was this attention to detail that he practised throughout his life.

In the same year that Bell was awarded his MD, 1859, Arthur Conan Doyle was born. He, too, enrolled at the Edinburgh Medical School. Of all his university teachers, it was Dr Joseph Bell who made the deepest impact on Doyle. With his beak-like nose, his shock of white hair (brought on by his wife’s sudden death) and his strange jerky manner of walking (ever since he caught diphtheria from one of his patients), Dr Bell was unforgettable.

But it was his teacher’s “method”, his powers of observation and deduction, that impressed young Doyle the most. Bell urged his students to take notice of all the little details about their patients. As he explained: “Most men have a head, two arms, a nose, a mouth and a certain number of teeth. It is the little differences (the ‘trifles’) such as the droop of an eyelid, which differentiates man.” As he would often tell his students, “Use your eyes, use your eyes.”

Bell once remarked to an astonished outpatient: “I know you are a beadle and ring the bells on Sundays at a church in Northumberland somewhere near the Tweed.” “I’m all that,” said the man, “but how do you know? I never told you.” The outpatient left, bewildered. Bell turned to his students: “Did you notice the Northumbrian burr in his speech, too soft for the south of Northumberland? One only finds it near the Tweed. And then his hands. Did you not notice the callosities on them caused by the ropes? Also, this is Saturday, and when I asked him if he could not come back on Monday, he said he must be getting home tonight. Then I knew he had to ring the bells tomorrow. Quite easy, gentleman, if you will only observe and put two and two together.”

When Bell’s skills came to the attention of Edinburgh’s police force he was asked to help them solves crimes. In 1888 Scotland Yard consulted him during its hunt for Jack the Ripper. He tried to identify the killer by his methods of deduction and a study of handwriting. He even came up with the name of the man he suspected but the name has never been made public.

By the time of the Ripper murders, Sherlock Holmes had already made his first appearance in Doyle’s novel A Study in Scarlet. The detective possessed many of Bell’s characteristics. As Doyle admitted: “I thought of my old teacher Joe Bell, of his eagle face, of his curious ways, and his eerie trick of spotting details.”

The Sherlock Holmes stories are packed with examples of the detective using Bell’s methods. In The Red-Headed League, Holmes brilliantly sums up a new client: “Beyond the obvious facts that he has at some time done manual labour, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been in China, and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing else.”

As each Sherlock Holmes story was published, Doyle sent a copy to Bell in Edinburgh.

Bell was intrigued by all the publicity and praise, but he gave all the credit to Doyle who he praised as “a born story-teller” whose genius had enabled him to make “a great deal out of very little.”

When Bell died on October 4 1911, a tribute to him in The Times marked the passing of a very special man “of extraordinarily quick perception and deduction.” If he were still alive, Bell would doubtless be amazed at Sherlock Holmes’ enduring popularity. He would also, no doubt, smile to think that he had a part in it all. But he had never been flattered by the idea that Sherlock Holmes was simply a clone of himself. For, although they shared the same dazzling powers of observation and deduction, Bell’s personal habits were very different from those of the great detective. He was not the incredibly untidy man that Holmes was. Bell did not keep his tobacco in a slipper and his cigars in the coal scuttle. He was not addicted to cocaine, did not practise firing air pistols indoors and did not play the violin.

When the press gave Bell the nickname of Sherlock Holmes he felt maligned: “I hope folk that know me see another and better side to me than what Doyle saw!” Bell was more kind-hearted and modest than the somewhat callous and proud super sleuth. Unlike Holmes, he also had a sense of humour.

This said, it is scarcely believable that without Dr Joseph Bell, Sherlock Holmes would ever have been born, let alone about to be resurrected.

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