A Tribute To Joseph Bell

On Saturday the 7th of October, 1911, The General Advertiser for Dublin, and all Ireland, paid tribute to Dr. Joseph Bell, who had died three days before in Edinburgh.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, openly admitted that he had, in part at least, based the character of the master detective on Bell’s diagnostic techniques, so, inevitably, the papers linked the death of Bell to Holmes.

The article read:-


Widespread regret was felt at the announcement that Mr. Joseph Bell, the original of Sherlock Holmes, had passed away. With his limping gait, alert manner, and kindly face, he was well known in the streets of the Scottish capital. In the medical profession, he had attained well-merited eminence as a surgeon.

It was while studying medicine at Edinburgh that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first, came under his influence.

The great surgeon’s marvelous powers of observation and analytical reasoning deeply impressed the young student, and it was the surgeon’s magnetic personality that was partly responsible for the first literary efforts which finally led to his abandonment of the consulting room for the study.

A photograph of Dr Joseph Bell.
Dr. Joseph Bell.


Sir Arthur paid his simple tribute to the personality of the great surgeon in the following short message from Windlesham, Crowborough, Sussex:-

“Personally, I can say very little of Dr. Joseph Bell, for I have never met him in his own house, and really only knew him as my professor.

As such I shall always see very clearly his stiff, bristling, iron-grey hair, his clear, half-critical, grey eyes, eager face, and swarthy skin.

He had a very spare figure as I remember him, and he walked with a jerky, energetic gait, his head carried high and his arms swinging.

He had a dry humour and a remarkable command of the vernacular, into which he easily fell when addressing patients.

His skill as a surgeon and his charm as a lecturer are, of course, proverbial.”


Many are the stories told of Dr. Bell’s wonderful powers of observation and close reasoning.

It was the delight of his simple, kindly nature to mystify his patients by giving them little personal titbits which they could not conceive were known to him.

“Your first child, my good woman,” he would remark in an off-hand manner to the anxious mother with her firstborn in the consulting room for out-patients at the great Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. The simple soul, stricken speechless with surprise, would go away marvelling, totally failing to recognise the significance of the brilliant tartan cap which she had bought with such pardonable extravagance for her little one.


His workmen patients were frequently amazed to find their occupation already known to the surgeon, who would read the greater part of a man’s history in his fingernails, his coat sleeves, his trouser-knees, the callosities of his fingers, or the expression of his face.

He would quietly tell them what part of the city or surrounding district they had just come from, unfailingly gathering his information from the mud on their boots.


“A cobbler, I see,” he would observe, seeing the mark of the lapstone on the man’s trousers, or he would commiserate on the heaviness of the hod of bricks with the astounded bricklayer who had come to consult him about his spine, the peculiarity of the horny hands of his patient not having escaped his observation.


To another, he would quietly observe that he need not look for improvement in his health until he gave up the drink, at the same time advising his shamefaced patient to throw away the flask he was carrying in his pocket at the moment.


Not always, however, did he hit the nail squarely on the head, as the following anecdote will show.

Lecturing one day on emphysema, which is the unnatural distention of a part with air, he introduced to his class a patient who was suffering from that complaint.

“Now, gentlemen,” he observed, in his most assured manner, “we probably find that this patient used to play some musical instrument.”

Turning to the patient, he said:- “You belonged to a band, did you not?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Now tell the class the sort of instrument you played.”

“The big drum,” was the somewhat disconcerting reply.”