The Arthur Conan Doyle EncyclopediaThe Arthur Conan Doyle EncyclopediaThe Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
22 May 1859, Edinburgh M.D., Kt, KStJ, D.L., LL.D., Sportsman, Writer, Poet, Politician, Justicer, Spiritualist Crowborough, 7 July 1930

The Original of Sherlock Holmes (1894)

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

The Original of Sherlock Holmes is an article written by Henry Mills Alden published in the Harper's Weekly on 3 february 1894.

The article is about Dr. Joseph Bell, with excerpts from the 1893 interview from The Pall Mall Gazette.

The Original of Sherlock Holmes *

Harper's Weekly (18 february 1893, p. 164)

There will not be much dispute among those who have read Dr. Conan Doyle's "Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" that they are the best detective stories ever written in their kind, and that their kind is in some essential respects a new one. Poe, indeed, in some of his tales, exhibited the intellectual operations of the born detective, and in a very interesting way. "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Purloined Letter" are admirable pieces of analysis, though they do not convince us that the author possessed the talent he delineates. The detective of fiction has the advantage over the detective of fact that the mystery, he is to unravel is of his own making. When Poe undertook, as in "The Mystery of Marie Roget," to produce the explanation of an actual crime (of which the details were provided for him), he was neither so convincing nor so interesting as when he made the lock to which he fitted the key.

The current detective of fiction is of French origin, and he bears very little resemblance to the current detective of fact. In the pages of the delightful Gaboriau the detective is an all-wise and all-powerful being, whom the incredulous reader cannot help suspecting to be. too bright and good for human nature's daily food, and far to transcend any actual exploits in detection. "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" for the first time introduce us to a conceivable detective, 'being a man who has cultivated the habit of observation until it has become a second nature or a sixth sense. No discerning reader of the stories can fail to have been impressed with the possibility that a man who diligently employed and trained faculties that all men possess might arrive logically at conclusions which to less-observant persons seem like magic when it turns out that they are true. Sherlock Holmes, in a word, makes much more strongly than any previous detective of fiction the effect of being founded on fact.

It was therefore with great satisfaction that the reader of Dr. Conan Doyle's fascinating stories learned some time since, from the author of his being, that Sherlock Holmes was indeed founded on fact and drawn from life, and that the model for him had been a professor in the medical college in which Dr. Doyle studied. This gentleman has been the object of an extensive and pardonable popular curiosity. He is Dr. Joseph Bell, of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. He studied at the famous University of Edinburgh, tools his degree at twenty-two, was for two years assistant demonstrator of anatomy in the university, then become house surgeon at the Royal Infirmary, where he has remained ever since, having for many years been senior surgeon, and latterly consulting surgeon. It is evident that the medical profession offers peculiar advantages for the development of the faculty of observation, which, indeed, is as helpful and indispensable to in ideal doctor as to an ideal detective. Diagnosis is, indeed, largely detective work, and those who have had the good fortune to be the patients of a " born doctor," when they had the misfortune to be patients at all, often have occasion for astonishment at a knowledge of their condition that seems to them -like clairvoyance, but is in truth the result of a natural faculty for observation assiduously cultivated. It is evident that the original of Sherlock Holmes has the faculty in an eminent degree.

A reporter for the Pall Mall Gazette has had, and related for his paper, a highly interesting interview with. the original of Sherlock Holmes. It appears that Dr. Bell has made use of his remarkable faculty not merely in the line of his profession, and for the astonishment of Isis acquaintances, but that it has frequently been employed in actual detective work, and in furtherance of the ends of justice. As alight be expected, he has paid special attention to medical jurisprudence. The crown retains in Edinburgh a regular medical adviser in criminal cases, and this medical adviser has for some twenty years been in the habit of enlisting the services of Dr. Bell, although in these cases he has merely been retained as an expert, and has no official connection with the crown. The reporter who visited Dr. Bell was in Edinburgh to report the Ardlamont murder trial, which has attracted comparatively little attention in this country, but has excited a great and widespread interest in England and Scotland; and in this case Dr. Bell has been retained as an expert adviser for the prosecution. While he declined to give any reminiscences of his detective work that had not already been made public, he declared that whatever deductions he had been able to make that had been of service to the authorities had been "simple and commonplace."

They had come from the habit he himself had formed and bad tried to inculcate upon all his scholars—Conan Doyle among them — the habit of paying attention to what are commonly dismissed as unimportant things. "I always impressed over and over again the vast importance of little distinctions, the endless significance of the trifles." To what important results this habit may lead is illustrated in the facts of Dr. Bell's career, as well as in Dr. Doyle's fiction founded on those facts. One illustration of it is striking enough to be well in Dr. Bell's own reported words:

"This one struck me as fanny 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. Its fact, he had the whole appearance of a man its one of the Highland regiments. The man turned out to he nothing but a shoemaker, and said he had never been in the army in his life. This leas rather a flower; but being absolutely certain I was right, and seeing t hat 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. 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 of his evasion was at once clear."

After one knows that Sherlock Holmes not entirely the creature of the novelist's imagination, but that his qualities are drawn from life, many readers must be incited to develop those qualities in themselves. In the interview from which we have quoted, Dr. Bell says, very truly and suggestively:

"I should just like to say this about my friend Doyle's stories, that I believe they have inculcated in the general public a new source of interest — the kind of interest created by Richard Jefferies and the 'Son of the Marshes.' They make many a fellow who has before felt very little interest its his life and daily surroundings think that, after all, there may be much more in life if he keeps his eyes open titan he had ever dreamed of in his philosophy. There is a problem, a whole game of chess, in many a little street incident or trifling occurrence if one once learns how to make the moves."

(*) The last of the "Sherlock Holmes" stories, which relates all the known particulars of his death, was not printed in Harper's Weekly, but will be found in Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, by A. Conan Doyle, author of Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Illustrated. Post 8vo; Cloth, Ornamental, $1 50. Ready February 2, 1894.