Finding Sherlock, Part 1: “The Endless Significance of the Trifles”
By Dean Jobb
Arthur Conan Doyle was a medical student at Edinburgh University in the late 1870s when he served as clerk to the sharp-eyed Dr. Joseph Bell, one of his instructors. “His intuitive powers,” Conan Doyle recalled, “were simply marvellous.” (From the author’s collection)
A young clerk led the next patient into a consulting room at Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary, where a group of medical students was assembled. The house surgeon sat in their midst, as if holding court—a wiry, clean-shaven man with a dark complexion and an eagle-beak nose.
“Well, my man,” the doctor began, his voice surprisingly shrill for someone so dignified, “you’ve served in the army.” It was an odd observation; the patient was dressed in civilian clothes.
“Aye, sir,” came the response.
“Not long discharged?”
“A Highland regiment?”
“A non-com officer?”
“Stationed at Barbados?”
The clerk and other students enrolled in Edinburgh’s medical school in the 1870s had seen this performance many times. It was as if their instructor could read minds. How could he surmise, at a glance, not only the man’s former regiment and rank, but where he had been stationed?
Observation and deduction, Joseph Bell assured them, nothing more. “You see, gentlemen,” he explained, “the man was a respectful man but did not remove his hat. They do not in the army, but he would have learned civilian ways had he been long discharged. He has an air of authority”—marking him as a former sergeant or corporal—“and he is obviously Scottish.”
But, Barbados? An educated guess. Bell could see the man was suffering from elephantiasis, a parasitic disease marked by severe swelling of the limbs and an affliction, he noted, “which is West Indian.” Elephantiasis could be contracted in other corners of Britain’s global empire, but Bell knew Barbados was, at the time, the only tropical posting for Highland regiments.
Much of this was news to the clerk, even though he had interviewed the patient moments before, to prepare his case notes. Bell “often learned more of the patient by a few quick glances than I had done by my questions,” he recalled. “It all seemed very miraculous until it was explained.”
One by one, day after day, the clerk presented patients to Bell, who told them where they had been born, where they lived or what they did for a living—all within seconds of meeting them.
The clerk’s name was Arthur Conan Doyle. He was in awe of Bell’s amazing powers of observation, how he used logic and evidence to make lightning-fast deductions. “His intuitive powers,” he recalled, “were simply marvellous.”
Years later, when he was longing to abandon medicine for a writing career, Conan Doyle would try his hand at detective fiction. But what would his detective be like, and how would he go about his work?
Two of the most renowned authors of his time had modeled their detective characters on real-life policemen. Mr. Bucket, the “steady-looking, sharp-eyed” investigator featured in Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House, was based on Scotland Yard Inspector Charles Field. Another London detective, Jonathan Whicher, was the inspiration for Sergeant Cuff, the fictional sleuth Wilkie Collins created in The Moonstone, published in 1868.
Conan Doyle did not know any detectives, but he did know a doctor with the uncanny ability to size up people. Joseph Bell would be the perfect model for a new kind of sleuth.
* * *
Dr. Bell, the model for Sherlock Holmes, urged his students to never forget “the vast importance of little distinctions, the endless significance of the trifles.”
Conan Doyle described his upbringing in a single word: spartan. “We lived,” he would one day write in his memoirs, “in the hardy and bracing atmosphere of poverty.” Necessity, not a passion for battling disease or comforting the sick, dictated Conan Doyle’s career choice. Depression and alcoholism rendered his father, Charles Doyle, increasingly unstable and often unable to work. A medical career would enable his son to support a family struggling for money and respectability.
Edinburgh had been a center of learning for centuries, the “Athens of the North” to its boosters. It was also dirty and polluted, mocked as “Auld Reikie”—Old Smokey—for the coal smoke fouling its air, and huddled beneath Edinburgh Castle, which crowned a rocky outcrop like a second Parthenon. Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born there on May 22, 1859, the second child of Charles and Mary Doyle. His father came from a well-off London family with Irish roots. John Doyle, his grandfather, was renowned for his caricatures of politicians and his uncles included a writer and illustrator, an art expert, and a graphic designer whose work graced the cover of the satirical magazine Punch. There was a literary streak in the family as well. Arthur was named after his great-uncle and godfather Michael Conan, a prominent journalist. One of his early memories was being hoisted onto the knee of a visiting luminary and family friend, the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray.
Success, however, had eluded his father. Sent to Edinburgh as a teenager, to take a job drafting blueprints for Scotland’s works department, Charles Doyle instead found a bride—Mary Foley, the granddaughter of his landlady—and a love for the bottle. Drawing fountains and architectural elements of buildings stifled his artistic ambitions; alcohol obliterated what remained, and he sometimes traded watercolors and drawings for drinks.
With the family’s livelihood threatened, Arthur, the oldest son, was groomed to take over as the head of a household that would grow to seven children. Money was found to send him, at age ten, to a boarding school. Tall for his age and broad-shouldered, he was a natural athlete and cricket, boxing, and other sports offered outlets for his energy and competitiveness. Reading nurtured his imagination and fostered a love of history, and he zipped through the works of Scott and Macaulay, Verne and Poe at a brisk pace. He wrote poems and discovered a knack for storytelling and transforming everyday events into amusing verses.
By the time Conan Doyle was ready for university, his family’s situation was dire. His father had been forced into retirement, with a meagre pension, and was descending into madness. His duty was clear. “The situation called for energy and application,” he recalled in his autobiography, “so that one was bound to try to meet it.” He adored his mother, who was as voracious a reader as he was, and he would not fail her. “It had been determined that I should be a doctor, chiefly, I think, because Edinburgh was so famous a centre for medical learning.” He was seventeen when he began his studies in October 1876.
* * *
A view of Edinburgh Castle and the city below in the mid-nineteenth century.
Edinburgh University’s medical school was the largest in Britain and enjoyed, in Conan Doyle’s opinion, “the highest reputation for practical teaching.” He observed surgical procedures and became hardened to the grisly business of nineteenth-century medicine, with instruments that seemed better suited for a torture chamber. A tray of sawdust was strategically placed below the operating table, Conan Doyle remembered, to absorb the patient’s blood. “To the man who has mastered Grey’s Anatomy,” he assured an assembly of medical students decades later, “life holds no further terrors.”
Botany, chemistry, anatomy, and the other compulsory subjects were “one long weary grind,” he recalled, and taking extra classes so he could finish the five-year program in just four years took a toll on his marks. He was, he conceded, “a 60 per cent man at examinations.”
While Conan Doyle’s marks may have pegged him as an average student, Joseph Bell saw something in the young man—his curiosity and his practical mind were a good fit for his own approach to medicine. “One of the best students I ever had,” the university’s surgery instructor would later say. As Bell’s clerk, Conan Doyle interviewed and then presented each patient, and watched as his mentor scrutinized each one.
“Cobbler, I see.” Bell told one patient. He drew his students’ attention to the man’s trousers. The cloth on the inside of the knee was worn where a shoemaker would rest his lapstone as he hammered leather.
Bell was thirty-nine when Conan Doyle enrolled at Edinburgh, and among the most renowned and respected surgeons in Britain. The son and grandson of prominent physicians, he edited the Edinburgh Medical Journal, authored a guide to surgical procedures, and served as Queen Victoria’s personal physician when she was in Scotland. He had a dry sense of humor and a humble, down-to-earth manner and everyone, even his students, called him Joe Bell. He was “kind-hearted,” a close friend said, “smiling and chatting, cheering the sorrowful, soothing the suffering.” His empathy flowed from personal tragedy. In 1874, his wife died at thirty-four, leaving him to raise their three children. His devotion to his patients was legendary. Diphtheria contracted while saving the life of a young girl left him with the high-pitched voice that surprised Conan Doyle when they first met. And when fighting for the life of a patient, there was a phrase he repeated like a mantra: “We must not give the poor soul away.”
He sometimes applied his deductive skills to criminal investigations, assisting Dr. Henry Littlejohn, Edinburgh’s police surgeon. Bell’s inquiries cracked at least one murder case; he discovered that Eugene Chantrelle had loosened a gas-pipe fitting in his Edinburgh home to make his wife’s murder look like an accidental poisoning. “My compliments to Joe Bell,” Chantrelle declared moments before he was hanged in 1878. Bell was convinced that more crimes could be solved if investigators adopted his methods. “It would be a great thing,” he believed, “if the police generally could be trained to observe more closely.” A detective often decided who must be responsible for a crime, then looked for the evidence to support that theory, “instead of getting his facts first and making all his little observations and deductions until he is driven irresistibly . . . in a direction he may never have originally contemplated.”
Patient after patient, Conan Doyle watched Bell work his magic. “From close observation and deduction,” Bell assured his students, “you can make a correct diagnosis of any and every case.” Discerning a patient’s history, nationality or occupation as well as their symptoms was a way to sharpen the powers of observation they would need in medical practice—with few diagnostic tests at their disposal, nineteenth-century doctors had to learn to recognize outward signs of illness or disease. Bell’s exercise also instilled confidence in patients, who believed a physician with such keen insights could diagnose their afflictions with equal skill. Facial features, Bell told his students, revealed nationality. Accent betrayed place of birth. Hands screamed occupation. “The scars of the miner differ from those of the quarryman,” he pointed out, just as the callouses built up on a carpenter’s hands “are not those of the mason.” A gnarled forefinger and thumb suggested a man as either a cork-cutter or a roof slater. Other differences stood out to the practiced eye. Soldiers and sailors walked in different ways. Tattoos recorded voyages to distant lands. Ornaments on watch chains spoke of where their owners had made their fortune.
Bell’s demonstrations made a lasting impression on his students. Decades later, one would describe him as “a super-man.” None was more star-struck than Conan Doyle, who became a convert to Bell’s method of marrying close observation to logic and reason. “The coat-sleeve, the trouser-knee, the callosities of the forefinger and thumb, the boot,” Conan Doyle jotted in a notebook years later—when taken together, such details would never “fail to enlighten.”
One feat of deduction stood out.
“Did you like your walk over the links to-day,” Bell asked a patient, “as you came in from the south side of the town?”
“Yes,” the man replied, “did your honour see me?”
As familiar as he was with Bell’s methods, Conan Doyle was stumped. How could anyone deduce the route this man followed to reach the hospital?
“Absurdly simple,” Bell insisted—at least to his nimble mind. The evidence to support his deduction was on the man’s boots. It was a wet day and he had spotted traces of reddish clay he knew was found on the links, but nowhere else within miles of the city. The conclusion was inescapable—the man had walked that way to reach the hospital.
Bell hammered home the lesson: Details were telling, and mattered. Remember “the vast importance of little distinctions,” he told his students, “the endless significance of the trifles.” These were words his clerk, Arthur Conan Doyle, would never forget.
Next Month: Finding Sherlock, Part 2: “A New Idea of the Detective”: Arthur Conan Doyle, the newest physician in the English town of Southsea, grew weary of waiting for patients to walk through the door. Fees earned from magazine articles helped to pay the bills, so he wrote. When he decided to try his hand at a detective story, he remembered the deductive feats of Dr. Bell. And in that instant, an iconic character was born.
Well, my man and often learned more Conan Doyle recounted this exchange and his reaction in his memoirs, published in 1924. See Memories and Adventures and Western Wanderings (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009), 15-6.
His intuitive powers Harry How, “A Day with Dr. Conan Doyle,” The Strand Magazine, vol. 4 (August 1892), 186.
hardy and bracing atmosphere and The situation called for energy Conan Doyle, Memories and Adventures, 4-5, 13. This is the source for Conan Doyle’s encounter with Thackeray and details of his family background.
the highest reputation and the man who has mastered Conan Doyle, “The Romance of Medicine,” in Alvin E Rodin and Jack D. Key, eds., Conan Doyle’s Tales of Medical Humanism and Values: Round the Red Lamp: Being Facts and Fancies of Medical Life, with Other Medical Short Stories (Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Co., 1992), 459, 466.
one long weary grind and a 60 per cent man Conan Doyle, Memories and Adventures, 14, 16.
One of the best students “The Original of ‘Sherlock Holmes’”: An Interview with Dr. Joseph Bell,” Pall Mall Gazette, December 28, 1893.
Cobbler, I see Harry How, “A Day with Dr. Conan Doyle,” The Strand Magazine, vol. 4 (August 1892), 186.
called him Joe Bell This reference to his name and the quotations that follow are drawn from Jessie M. E. Saxby, Joseph Bell: An Appreciation by an Old Friend (Edinburgh and London: Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier, 1913), 12-3, 32-3, 35.
My compliments to Joe Bell Wallace, The Fabulous Originals, 36-8. See also Ely M. Liebow, Dr. Joe Bell: Model for Sherlock Holmes (Madison: Popular Press, 2007), 119-22.
would be a great thing “The Original of ‘Sherlock Holmes.’”
close observation and deduction Quoted in Michael Sims, Arthur & Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes (London: Bloomsbury Publishing , 2017), 10.
scars of the miner “A Day with Dr. Conan Doyle,” 188.
a cork-cutter or a roof slater “Sherlock Holmes, the Original, Dead,” New York Times, October 5, 1911.
a super-man A.L. Curor, “Dr. Bell Our Teacher,” Daily Express (London), July 11, 1930.
The coat-sleeve, the trouser-knee Quoted in John Dickson Carr, The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1994), 44.
your walk over the links, vast importance of little distinctions and Of course, gentlemen “The Original of ‘Sherlock Holmes.’”
Dean Jobb’s new book recreates the hunt for Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, a Victorian-era serial killer who murdered as many as ten people in Chicago, England and Canada – a true tale of crime and madness told against the backdrop of the birth of forensic investigation. Coming in 2021 from Algonquin Books and HarperCollins Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb