You learned about 10 men who might have inspired Indiana Jones and 10 men who almost certainly inspired James Bond. Now we’re going to talk about Sherlock Holmes, but here’s your first curious fact about Sherlock Holmes: He wasn’t inspired by a range of people. He was directly and admittedly inspired by one person, Dr. Joseph Bell, JP, DL, FRCSE, a Scottish surgeon and University of Edinburgh lecturer known for his keen attention to detail. Here are fascinating facts about the man who inspired the world’s greatest detective.
1. Dr. Bell’s Amazing Intuition: Dr. Bell wasn’t a detective. He was a doctor. However, he possessed keen powers of observation and deduction. One of his favorite parlor tricks was being able to figure out what a person did for a living based on their callouses (he could tell the callouses of a stone mason from those of a carpenter) or even what neighborhood they lived in based on their accents, within seconds of meeting them. Like Holmes, his explanations of how “easy” it was only impressed the subject further.
2. Dr. Bell, Investigative Consultant: While Dr. Bell wasn’t a detective, he was sometimes contacted to provide his special deductive capabilities. The life of the real life Sherlock Holmes intersects with perhaps the most famous murderer in British history, Jack the Ripper. He spent seven days on the case, writing an extensive report for Scotland Yard that even named a suspect. No one is sure whatever happened to his report on the case.
3. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Was His Watson: Many authors insert themselves into their own stories as protagonists. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle instead made himself the sidekick. He worked directly underneath Dr. Bell in his ward where he was able to observe the incredible doctor on a daily basis. Here he saw Dr. Bell engage in such pursuits as identifying the travels of sailors by their tattoos.
4. He Pioneered Forensic Science: Forensic science is the cornerstone of contemporary criminal investigation, as well as medicine. You can’t conduct an autopsy without its principles. Dr. Bell’s keen attention to detail and ability to deduce conclusions from a small amount of information made him a pioneer in the world of forensic science.
5. He Was Queen-Empress Victoria’s Personal Surgeon: Such an esteemed surgeon was Dr. Bell that he was Queen-Empress Victoria’s personal surgeon any time that she traveled to Scotland. She lived to the ripe old age of 81 at a time when the average life expectancy was about half that.
6. Dr. Bell Might Be the Reason Heroes Wear Capes: Sherlock Holmes is one of the most visually iconic protagonists in history. Like Superman, you instantly know who he is when you see him. His physical appearance and dress style were likewise lifted from bell, who had a penchant for long capes and deerstalker caps. Holmes was perhaps the first hero to wear a cape, meaning that the entire trope of caped heroes can be traced to Dr. Bell.
7. Dr. Bell Took Pride in the Character: Dr. Bell was quick to tell people that he was the real-life inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, a most un-British boastfulness. However, there was often an element of humble bragging about it. Dr. Bell would inform people that he was the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes in the same breath he told them that many of the stories were a bit sensationalized.
8. Conan Doyle Didn’t Like Everything About Dr. Bell: Almost as famous as his keen deductive abilities was Dr. Bell’s cold insensitivity toward his patients. Doyle frequently found himself repulsed by the doctor’s lack of empathy. This steeliness found its way into the character of Sherlock Holmes, who barely has any personal life outside of his work.
9. He Literally Wrote the Book on Surgery: It’s hard to imagine in the 21st century, but medicine basically didn’t exist all that long ago. A doctor could sew you up or lance a boil, but that was about it. Dr. Bell changed all of that, being credited with being the first surgeon to practice surgery as a science. He literally wrote the book on practical surgery, Manual of the Operations of Surgery, published in 1866. Thank him if you had your appendix out and lived to tell the tale.
10. The BBC Produced a Series About Him: If you want to know more about Dr. Bell, look no further than the BBC. They produced a series about him, Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes. Ian Richardson portrayed him in the series. And don’t forget that he’s also the inspiration for Dr. House by proxy.