The character of Sherlock Holmes shared many qualities with Dr. Joseph
Bell, the man who inspired Conan Doyle to create the famous detective.
Conan Doyle met Dr. Bell in 1877 at the University of Edinburgh Medical
School, where he was studying to be a doctor and Bell was one of his
Bell was thirty-nine years old when Conan Doyle first attended one of
his lectures. He is said to have walked with a jerky kind of a step
that communicated great energy. His nose and chin were angular and
his eyes twinkled with shrewdness. In addition to being a brilliant
doctor, Bell was also an amateur poet, a sportsman and a bird-watcher.
By the end of Conan Doyle's second year Bell had selected him to serve
as an assistant in his ward. This gave Conan Doyle the
opportunity to view Dr. Bell's remarkable ability to quickly deduce a
great deal about a patient.
Dr. Bell observed the way a person moved. The walk of a sailor
varied vastly from that of a soldier. If he identified a person as a
sailor he would look for any tattoos that might assist him in
knowing where their travels had taken them. He trained himself
to listen for small differences in his patient's accents to help him
identify where they were from. Bell studied the hands of his
patients because callouses or other marks could help him determine their
So while Conan Doyle went on to write about the brilliant Sherlock
Holmes, he played Dr. Watson, at least for awhile, to his professor.
"In teaching the treatment of disease and accident," Dr. Bell
stated, "all careful teachers have first to show the student how to
recognize accurately the case. The recognition depends in great
measure on the accurate and rapid appreciation of small points in
which the diseased differs from the healthy state. In fact, the
student must be taught to observe. To interest him in this kind of
work we teachers find it useful to show the student how much a trained use
of the observation can discover in ordinary matters such as the previous
history, nationality and occupation of a patient."