Skip to main page content (AccessKey S)
Joseph Bell lived from 2 December 1837 to 4 October 1911. He was a lecturer in medicine whose deductive approach to diagnosis inspired Arthur Conan Doyle's character Sherlock Holmes. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Joseph Bell was born in Edinburgh. He attended the Edinburgh Academy before studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh. He graduated with his MD in 1859 and became a house surgeon at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary under James Syme. He then went on to become a demonstrator in anatomy at the University of Edinburgh Medical School before becoming a lecturer in surgery and in clinical surgery. He also started the first nurses' training course in Scotland at the Royal Infirmary. He served as the editor of the Edinburgh Medical Journal between 1873 and 1896, and was Secretary and Treasurer of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh from 1876 to 1887 when he became its President. He was also personal surgeon to Queen Victoria whenever she was in Edinburgh, and became a Justice of the Peace, and a Deputy Lord Lieutenant.
Among his students and contemporaries Bell became famous for his ability to make swift and accurate diagnoses of patients, often on the basis of close observation of clues that others simply never saw. His party-piece was to pick a stranger and, through observation, deduce his occupation and recent activities. One of Bell's students in 1877 was Arthur Conan Doyle. Bell clearly made a strong impression on Doyle. In 1887 the latter published A Study in Scarlet which marked the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes was explicitly modelled on Joseph Bell and Doyle later wrote a letter to him saying: "It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes although, in the stories, I have the advantage of being able to place him in all sorts of dramatic situations". It is said that Bell took considerable pride in the success of the Sherlock Holmes stories.
Joseph Bell died in 1911. He was buried in Edinburgh's Dean Cemetery next to his wife, Edith Murray. In November 2004, the US Fox TV network aired the first episode of the American medical drama House, starring the English actor Hugh Laurie. The creator of the series has described it as "a subtle homage to Sherlock Holmes": which in many ways brings the setting for the character full circle back to its medical roots and to Joseph Bell. He is remembered more directly in the name of the Joseph Bell Centre, established in 2001 as a centre for Forensic Statistics and Legal Reasoning by the University of Edinburgh, Glasgow Caledonian University and the Lothian & Borders Police Forensic Science Laboratory.