With Dr Joseph Bell

Dr Jospeh Bell (1837 – 1911) was a surgeon and lecturer at the medical school of Edinburgh University, who was famed for his powers of observation and deduction when it came to diagnosing illnesses and revealing the backgrounds of patients who appeared before him.

In 1877, a young medical student by the name of Arthur Conan Doyle became Dr Bell’s clerk and the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, and was inspired, by what he saw of the good doctor’s methods and powers of deduction and observation, to create the character of Sherlock Holmes.

A photograph of Dr Joseph Bell.
Dr Joseph Bell.


By the 1890’s, it was common knowledge that Dr Bell had been the inspiration behind Sherlock Holmes, and journalists were eager to track down the original and to secure interviews with him.

The Wigan Observer, on Friday, 12th January, 1894, published the following interview with the inspiration behind literature’s greatest detective:-


It was a privilege to meet Dr. Joseph Bell at his handsome house in Melville Crescent.

Dr. Conan Doyle has made no secret of the fact that Dr. Bell is the original of his famous creation Sherlock Holmes. But Dr. Bell insists that “Doyle’s the clever man. It’s nothing to do with me.”

It was with the greatest difficulty in the world that Dr. Bell would submit to be interviewed, even under the most solemn promise of brevity; at first, I thought I should have to return with virgin notebook from Baker – I mean Melville Crescent. But the doctor’s hatred of publicity was outweighed by his abnormal development of cheery courtesy, and at length I was seated, pencil in hand, before the white-haired, keen-eyed, ruddy-faced man, with clean-shaven lips and chin, black velvet dinner jacket, the acquaintance and friendship of whom inspired Dr. Doyle to write his fascinating series of stories.


“Can you,” I proceeded, “tell me of any instances in which your powers of observation have been of service to the authorities in the tracing of crime?”

Well, for twenty years or more I have been engaged in the practice of medical jurisprudence on behalf of the Crown; but there is little I can tell you about it. It would not be fair to mention that which is the private knowledge of the Crown and those associated therewith, and the cases which have been made public would not bear repetition, for, after all, any deductions and inferences, and so on, which I have been the means of placing at the disposal of the authorities are simple and commonplace.

The only credit I can take to myself is that appertaining to the circumstances that I always impressed over and over ogam upon all my scholars – Conan Doyle among them – the vast importance of little distinctions, the endless significance of trifles.

The great majority of people, of incidents, and of cases, resemble each other in the main and larger features.

For instance, most men have apiece a head, two arms, nose, mouth, and a certain number of teeth. It is the little differences, in themselves trifles, such a the droop of an eyelid or whatnot, which differentiate men.’”


“Will you give an instance of the manner in which you note these all-important trifles?”

“This one struck me funny at the time.

A man walked into the room where I was instructing the students, and his case seemed to be a very simple one. I was talking about what was wrong with him. ‘Of course, gentlemen,’ I happened to say, he has been a soldier in a Highland regiment, and probably a bandsman.’

I pointed out the swagger in his walk, suggestive of the piper; while his shortness told me that if he had been a soldier it was probably as a bandsman. In fact, he had the whole appearance of a man in one of  the Highland regiments.

The man turned out to be nothing but a shoemaker, and said that he had never been in the Army in his life.

This was rather a floorer; but being absolutely certain that I was right, seeing that something was up, I did a pretty cool thing. I told two of the strongest clerks, or dressers, to remove the man to a side room, and to detain him till I came.

I went and had him stripped – and I daresay your own acuteness has told you the sequel?”

“You have given me credit for that which I don’t possess, I assure you.”

“Why, under the left breast I instantly detected a little blue ‘D’ branded on his skin. He was a deserter. That was how they used to mark them in the Crimean days, and later, although it is not permitted now.

Of course, the reason for his evasion was not at once clear.”


“Did you have any prevision about the celebrity of Conan Doyle while he was yet your pupil?”

“I did not know that he was coming out as a literary character, but I always regarded him as one of the best students I ever had. He was exceedingly interested always upon anything connected with diagnosis, and he was never tired of trying to discover all those little details which one looks for.

I recollect he was amused once when a patient walked in and sat down.

“Good morning, Pat,” I said, for it was impossible not to see that he was an Irishman.

“Good morning, your honour,” replied the patient.

“Did you like your walk over the links today, as you came in from the south side of town?, I asked.

“Yes,” said Pat, “did your honour see me?”

Well, Conan Doyle could not see how I knew that, absurdly simple as it was. On a showery day, such as that had been, the reddish clay at the bare parts of the links adheres to the boot, and a tiny part is bound to remain. There is no such clay anywhere else round the town for miles.

Well, that and one or two similar instances excited Doyle’s keenest interest, and set him experimenting himself in the same direction, which was just what I wanted, with him, and with all my other scholars.”


“Is there any system by which the habit of observation is to be cultivated – among the police, for instance?”

“There is among doctors. It is taught regularly to the students here at all events.

It would be a grand thing if the police generally could be trained to observe more closely. The lines upon which it might be done would be to make the prizes bigger for the educated man. At present the incentive to special training is not too great, I believe.

The fatal mistake which the ordinary policeman makes is this – that he gets his theory first and then makes the facts fit it, instead of getting his facts first and making all his little observations and deductions until he is driven irresistibly by them into elucidation in a direction he may never have originally contemplated.


With regard to the doctors, I think every good teacher, if he is to make his men good doctors, must get them to cultivate the habit of noticing the little apparent trifles.

Any good doctor ought to be able to tell, before a patient has fairly sat down, a good deal of what is the matter with him or her.

With women especially, the observant doctor can often tell, by noticing her, exactly what part of her body she is going to talk about.


But to get back to the police.

You cannot expect the ordinary bobby, splendid fellow as he is so far as pluck and honesty go, to stand eight hours on his legs and then develop great mental strength.

He doesn’t get enough blood to his brain to permit of it.

The only feasible scheme which strikes me, would be to get a good man and give him carte blanche about the choosing of his assistants and the special education of them.

I ought to say that I believe there are several very fine police officers in this country.

I met Inspector Greet, of London, for instance, since he has been in Edinburgh on the Ardlamont case, and I must say that he struck me as being a very smart officer.”


“Have you had at all an eventful life yourself ?”

“No. I studied here in the university, took my degree at twenty-two, was for two years assistant demonstrator of anatomy in the Edinburgh University, signed as house surgeon at the Royal Infirmary of this city, and have been there ever since, having been a senior surgeon for many years, and being now consulting surgeon.


I should just like to say this about my friend Doyle’s stories, that I believe they inculcated in the general public new source of interest.

They make many a fellow, who has before felt very little interest in his life and daily surroundings, think that, after all, there may be much more in life, if he only keeps his eyes open, than he had ever dreamed of in his philosophy.”