Conan Doyle: what was the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes?

Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes novels, has had an enormous influence on popular culture over the last century.

Sparking our country’s obsession with murder mysteries, his most famous creation has been capturing our imaginations since 1886. But where did Sherlock Holmes come from? Was there a real man behind the fictional detective?

The Royal College of Surgeons has the answer. In its archives is a collection of letters between Arthur Conan Doyle and a Dr Joseph Bell, who was a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh’s medical school. Stephen Kerr, the college’s librarian, is responsible for these precious documents. He reveals that one letter in particular offers conclusive proof that Bell was the real-life inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle wrote to Bell in 1892: “It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes.”

Conan Doyle met Bell when he was studying to be a doctor at the university, in 1877. Bell’s powers of diagnosis were very impressive, and he often used to demonstrate the importance of close observation in medical practice. He did this by selecting a stranger, and then deducing his or her occupation and recent activities by simply observing them. Stephen Kerr points out that this diagnostic ability is “a great attribute” for both a detective and a doctor to have, giving Conan Doyle a starting point for Holmes’s finely tuned powers of observation. This is confirmed in the author’s letter to Bell: “…round the centre of deduction and inference and observation which I have heard you inculcate I have tried to build up a man.”

Joseph Bell was a well respected medical practitioner as well as an accomplished teacher. Kerr recounts a story of Bell’s work as a paediatrician, involving a child with diphtheria. In an effort to remove harmful mucus from the child’s windpipe, he inserted a tube and sucked out the mucus, but in the process caught diphtheria himself.

Bell also “quite enjoyed” being the real life Holmes, according to Kerr. He tells of an occasion at a dinner party where a lady asked if he had read the Sherlock Holmes novels, to which he replied: “I AM Sherlock Holmes!”

However, the letters between Conan Doyle and Bell also reveal that Bell’s influence only went so far. Kerr says that Bell often wrote to wrote to Conan Doyle with “suggestions for stories”, but his former student had to put his foot down. He was the author, after all.

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