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The Person Who Inspired the Character Sherlock Holmes: Dr. Joseph Bell

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Dr. Joseph Bell

Dr. Joseph Bell

The character of Sherlock Holmes was based on an impressive medical surgeon named Dr. Joseph Bell. He would often entertain his students with his impressive observational skills. Bell was a Scottish surgeon and lecturer at the University of Edinburgh's medical school. He was also a driving force in the creation of forensic science.

Early Life

Joseph Bell was born on December 2, 1837. His father was Benjamin Bell and his mother was Cecilia Barbara Craigie. He is considered to be the first scientific surgeon in the United Kingdom. Bell studied medicine at the Medical School of the University of Edinburgh. In 1859, he earned an MD with his thesis about epithelial cancer. When Bell was a student, he was made a member of the Royal Medical Society. His dissertation is still on file with the Royal Medical Society.

University of Edinburgh Medical School

University of Edinburgh Medical School


As an instructor at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, Joseph Bell was very focused on the importance of detailed observation when making a medical diagnosis. To make this point, Bell would often choose a stranger. By simply observing him, Bell would determine his recent activities and occupation. This ability resulted in him being considered a pioneer in forensic science Bell did this during a time when science was not commonly used for criminal investigations. He was made Queen Victoria's personal surgeon whenever she visited Scotland. Bell successfully published several medical textbooks. In 1887, Bell was elected president of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (RSCE).

Creation of Forensic Science

Many people attribute the birth of forensics science to Dr. Joseph Bell. It is believed that he perfected the use of scientific observation techniques used in science to help investigate crime. He is credited with being the first person to do such a thing. Bell was involved in many types of criminal investigations. He was able to assist law enforcement with his valuable observations and insights. Bell would provide his thoughts about a crime scene, the crime victim as well as who could be responsible. Bell became involved in the Jack the Ripper murders in 1888. It is said that he observed the crime scenes where the murders took place and used his observational skills to develop the name of a subject. Bell's findings were sealed in an envelope. It was sent from Scotland to London. There was nothing noted in the Jack the Ripper file concerning Bell's observations. After this happened, Jack the Ripper murders stopped and never occurred again.

Forensic Methodology

The development of forensic methodology meant that evidence could be obtained without depending on the testimony of witnesses or victims. It can effectively be used to reject or accept such verbal reports. This methodology meant that a murder weapon, fingerprints, hair samples as well as blood and more have important clues. They can effectively be used to determine what happened to whom, when, and who is responsible. Forensic methodology involves the idea of close observation, noticing the subtle signs and fine details of a crime scene.

Arthur Conan Doyle

Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes

Dr. Joseph Bell became quite popular for his idea of developing forensic techniques to solve crimes. In 1877, Arthur Conan Doyle met Bell. Doyle worked as Bell's clerk at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary for several years. He carefully observed Bell's methods as well as behavior. Arthur Conan Doyle eventually wrote a series of very popular stories involving a fictional character he created named Sherlock Holmes. Bell was aware of his being the inspiration for the Sherlock Holmes character and was fascinated by it.

Story of Sherlock Holmes in the Strand Magazine

Story of Sherlock Holmes in the Strand Magazine

Literary Success

Arthur Conan Doyle wrote fifty-six short stories and four novels that featured Sherlock Holmes. In 1877, the first stories involving Sherlock Holmes appeared in “Beeton's Christmas Annual.” In 1890, the Sherlock Holmes character became extremely popular after these short stories were published. This popularity only increased when short stories based on the Sherlock Holmes character were published in “The Strand Magazine” starting in 1891. The magazine published a long series of short stories based on Sherlock Holmes. In 1927, it also published two serialized novels.

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Time Period

The stories featuring Sherlock Holmes covered a time period from 1879 to around 1917. The final case solved by Sherlock Holmes was in 1917. All the stories are narrated by Holmes' biographer and friend Dr. John H. Watson. There are four exceptions. Two of the stories are narrated by Sherlock Holmes himself. Two others that are narrated by a third person.


Dr. Joseph Bell died on October 4, 1911. He died of heart failure. His funeral took place on October 7th at St. Georges United Free Church in Edinburgh. Dr. Joseph Bell was buried at Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh. He was placed next to his wife Edith and their son Benjamin. His place was also next to the funeral plots of her brother and parents.

Bronze Plaque Memorial

Bronze Plaque Memorial

Bronze Plaque

On October 8, 2011, a bronze plaque memorial was dedicated to Joseph Bell memorializing a century since his death. The plaque details the connection of Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Bell. The ceremony for the unveiling of the bronze plaque was attended by many representatives from Sherlock Holmes societies and clubs. Several gave short speeches.


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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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