Dr. Joe Bell: Model for Sherlock Holmes

Dr. Joe Bell: Model for Sherlock Holmes

Dr. Joe Bell: Model for Sherlock Holmes

Dr. Joe Bell: Model for Sherlock Holmes


A distinguished physician and professor of medicine at Edinburgh University, and a forensic expert for the British Crown, Joseph Bell was well known for his remarkable powers of observation and deduction. In what would become true Sherlockian fashion, he had the ability to deduce facts about his patients from otherwise unremarkable details. In one instance recounted by Arthur Conan Doyle himself-and similar to Sherlock Holmes's own observations in "The Greek Interpreter"-Bell took little time to determine that one of his patients had recently served in the army, a non-commissioned officer discharged from his Highland regiment stationed in Barbados:

“The man was a respectful man, but did not remove his hat. They do not in the army, but he would have learned civilian ways had he been long discharged. He has an air of authority and he is obviously Scottish. As to Barbados, his complaint is elephantitis, which is West Indian and not British.”

Based on extensive research into the life of Bell and including tantalizing accounts of the connections between Bell and Conan Doyle, this biography is required reading for anyone interested in Victorian medicine, in the history of detective fiction, and in Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.


It is a great privilege to have been asked by Professor Ely Liebow to write a foreword to his book on Dr. Joseph Bell. This task has been a true labour of love as my great grandfather has been a great favourite of mine since my earliest childhood. Although he died twenty years before I was born, I have felt always that I have known him. His almost life sized portrait, a photograph of which can be seen on page 171, used to hang between those of his parents above the sideboard in my grandparents' diningroom. Now it hangs on the stairs in our house in Edinburgh. I like to think that I can remember him from the age of three during my first visit to see my grandmother, his daughter, when my parents brought me back with them on leave from India.

To the family Dr. Bell was referred to as 'Gigs', a name by which he was known by those grandchildren who were old enough to have met him. To me his portrait displays a very kindly and intelligent individual, who looks down upon those who pass as a friend and confidant. Without a doubt there is a touch of sadness in his eyes, which seem to follow you as you pass on the stairs.

I have been brought up always to believe th at he is the person upon whom Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based the character of Sherlock Holmes. My grandmother told me that she was convinced that he was the teacher who gave his pupil the original idea of that great fictional figure. This is borne out by one of the letters written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to my great grandfather on 4th May 1892, which is in my possession. In it he says: 'It is most . . .

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