The Real-Life Sherlock Holmes

It was this year that I started reading Sherlock Holmes. Over the years I have watched some of the adaptations, one of my favourites being Murder Rooms: Mysteries of the Real Sherlock Holmes.

Being a writer myself, I am intrigued when real-life inspirations are shown. For Arthur Conan Doyle, it was his medical professor Dr Joseph Bell, who was his. It was just before Bell was to be an expert witness in The Ardlamont Murder case that he was named as the ‘real life Sherlock Holmes’.

Joseph Bell in deerstalker hat and cloak, photograph, undated (Library & Archive at Surgeons’ Hall/Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh)

In his instruction, Joseph Bell emphasised the importance of close observation in making a diagnosis. To illustrate this, he would often pick a stranger, and by observing them, deduce their occupation and recent activities. These skills caused him to be considered a pioneer in forensic science, (forensic pathology in particular), at a time when science was not yet widely used in criminal investigations.

In the age of COVID-19, where we had to be told to wash our hands, it is hard to imagine what life was before it. It seems almost alien. But way back in the 1800s — when it wasn’t required, Joseph Bell was one of the first physicians that insisted on washing their hands, when they were to examine a pregnant woman. This would go on to be what we now know today as hygiene practices.

He had gotten his qualifications from the University of Edinburgh Medical School. He wrote Manual of the Operations of Surgery, published in 1866, that became a staple textbook in the industry.

The murder case drew more publicity than it may have if Joseph Bell wasn’t involved. Another witness, who appeared alongside Bell was Dr. Henry Littlejohn, who was also cited as an inspiration to the character. It was brought up during the trial the similarities between the murder case and a story of Doyle’s called, The Boscombe Valley Mystery, which appeared 2 years earlier.

As well as this murder case, Bell was also involved in several other cases including an analysis of the Ripper Murders to Scotland Yard.

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