Dr. Joe Bell & Sherlock Holmes

“Dr. Joseph Bell…was indeed so wise a counsellor, had so level a head, and so perfect a temper, that it was impossible to take offense at anything he said. Moreover, he had a fund of humor which was not so much a fund as an inspiration.”––Lord Stormonth-Darling.

Dr. Joe Bell’s biography by Ely Liebow, has been a superb addition to my study of the character of Sherlock Holmes. As an author of Sherlock Holmes, this inspiration is what fuels my writing. Holmes is a hard man to catch up to, as Jeremy Brett said, “Holmes is such a silver streak of light. He’s a magnesium flame on a tightrope.” And he should know. In learning about Dr. Joseph Bell, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s admitted inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, I discovered to my joy that he was an exceptional man in every way. And I would say even more exceptional than the detective Doyle created from his lifelong friend and mentor. Of course Dr. Bell actually lived, which grants the Sherlockian writer an appreciative basis for Holmes existence and long life. Jeremy Brett said, “. . . the definitive Sherlock Holmes is really in everyone’s head. No actor can fit into that category because every reader has his own ideal.” As a Sherlock Holmes writer I am desirous of discovering as much as I can about this singular man.

My path led me to the beginning––Dr. Joe Bell. Determining what he achieved, how he worked, lived, loved, and believed. Like Holmes he put his professional life (as a surgeon and doctor) above all else, he believed in helping all who came to him, and treated many without means. Holmes’ valiant devotion to Justice and his belief system was all Dr. Bell. Bell as a scientist of impeccable values, knew the significance of his spiritual life to his life and work. Holmes was a scientist with the same passionate and chivalrous belief structure as Bell’s, yet without Bell’s religion; it suffused his whole life and everything he did. This was taken for granted by Doyle and his readers.

Why did Arthur Conan Doyle leave out the kind and loving aspects of Bell’s personality when he created Holmes? Possibly he wanted to allow Bell some anonymity. Or he felt a detective who traveled the darkest alleyways of London solving the most debauched crimes and murder for his daily bread, and who was an insomniac because of this, would need to put aside his feelings and create a “red Indian” front to survive. It was my experience to be one of the first women who worked in TV news in New York City. Not in a comfortable studio, but racing through the clogged city streets to get to the scene before the police or fire companies, in order to get the good shots. The horrors I experienced and filmed in the dark alleys of that enormous city in some ways probably equated in shock value and similarity to what Holmes experienced in Victorian London. There came a time when I had to decide whether I wanted to remain a feeling human being or meld with the mask I had to wear in order to do my job. As a writer I am forever grateful for my younger self’s choice to leave that mask behind. Dr. Bell never put it on and for me this is one of his greatest accomplishments. And one to be emulated. He had the ability to face the intense pain 19th-Century medicine inflicted on its patients with a warm heart and care. He was right there with them. Unlike most medical professionals, he knew well how compassion and humor alleviated his patients pain and fear. To remain open to this is a daily act of bravery.

According to Liebow, Dr. Bell could be abrupt, probably more so with his students. Doyle was one of these and Bell took him on as an assistant which gave young Doyle even more of a chance to appreciate Bell’s methods. But he was also a very giving man, who placed all men in the same category and treated them as his beliefs would have him, with care, a loving nature, and as equals. He was head of the surgical department at the University of Edinburgh Hospital and a pioneering forensic pathologist at a time when medicine was crawling out of the dark ages. He championed the use of anesthesia and antiseptics when first introduced and most doctors didn’t believe in their value. His approach in the care and healing of children was renowned as was his dramatic flair while teaching medical students. He quickly adopted Florence Nightingale’s approach to nursing and throughout his career placed high value on his nursing staff. This was unusual at a time when nurses were considered a step up from street whores by most doctors. He created one of the first nursing schools with her help, wrote a book on it and changed the course of nursing in Scotland. He wrote highly detailed books on surgery.

There is much that Doyle took from Joe Bell to create Sherlock Holmes. He used Bell’s height and looks, professionalism, consulting practice, astute observational skill, forensic science, uncanny ability to diagnose a patient or client within minutes of seeing them, belief system, and his devotion to true justice. Even the deerstalker and Inverness cape was Bell, though that was contributed by the Strand illustrator, Sidney Paget, who also wore a deerstalker, and not by Doyle. Bell used his immense knowledge and experience to interview patients, and to diagnose illness where other doctors failed. A very wonderful coincidence was that he even worked with a Dr. Watson, another well-known physician and surgeon at the time. Dubbed, “Fastest scalpel in the West,” a military man who was also a crack shot.

Most of all, the exceptional Dr. Joe Bell was remembered for his kind and loving nature. Why would Doyle leave that out? I do understand his choices, yet still question them. Joe Bell was unique in that he was the best in his profession yet he carried it out every day with an inordinate kindness for a physician.

Why was Holmes shown as judgmental, unkind, humorless, and Spartan? Why would he believe in the ridiculous claptrap of his day that love for another person wastes away one’s intelligence? There was absolutely no proof for this theory (similar to the argument against masturbation in Victorian times, as causing insanity and wasting.) Both were disproved in Holmes’ day. I find it difficult to believe such an intelligent scientist would live his life according to this pseudo-scientific garbage. The scientific and philosophic discussions of whether kindness and love actually contribute to the joys of life begin in the 19th-Century and are proven in the 20th. Such joy is akin to one’s excitement at professional and friendly pursuits and successes (something Holmes is allowed by Doyle).

I feel strongly that Doyle could not have done better than to add more of Bell to Holmes. At least he would not have been so constrained by the character he created and stifled as to where he could go with the stories. Possibly this could have allowed him to write more Holmes stories. Is it unfair of me to ask this? Doyle lived in the late 19th-Century and early 20th and I live in the 21st Century during a time when so many pastiche writers are exploring the life of Sherlock Holmes.

As a woman artist I do know that to be an artist in the truest sense, I had to choose between entanglement and my art. I chose entanglement, as did Dr. Bell. But today for me, after two women’s revolutions is a very different place from the Victorian age of Sherlock Holmes. His devotion to his art was supreme and he made a different choice. To commit to a partner and children would mean the partner would become a subordinate in the relationship, as Bell’s 19th Century wife. Living in service to another where the children would be cared for, the social life necessary for such an important doctor, and even his clothing, meals, and his home managed completely by the partner.

Holmes’ genius may have seen this as beneficent slavery or at least an inequality. He derided classism and inequality. To ask one you love to take this on was not something the Great Detective was willing to do. While all around him, Victorian gentlemen and even Watson made this commonplace pact with their wives and mistresses. Yet, a history which was ignored by Conan Doyle in his stories, my history, the suffragists, would have offered Holmes a way out of that dilemma. In my novels, I explore what the inclusion of women’s history would mean to the bohemian mind of Sherlock Holmes.

Dr. Bell spent his exceptional life surrounded by a loving wife, children, family and friends, who cared for him and allowed him the freedom to practice his profession and also have a warm, loving home. He embraced new ideas, even if it came from a woman who was revolutionizing the way hospitals, patients, and soldiers were treated even on the front lines like Florence Nightingale. None of the riches of his life affected his intelligence in a negative way, on the contrary, his life was lived full of love and accomplishment.

By Dr. Joe Bell: Give me, dear Lord, thy magic common things Which all can see, which all may share; Sunlight and dewdrops, grass and stars and sea, Nothing unique or new, and nothing rare. Just daisies, Knapweed, wind among the thorns, Some clouds to cross the blue old sky above; Rain, winter fires, a useful hand, a heart, The common glory of a woman’s love. Then, when my feet no longer tread new paths (Keep them from fouling sweet things anywhere) Write one old epitaph in grace-lit words: “Such things look fairer that he sojourned here.”

Holmes also believed in leaving things fairer for his sojourn. “Work is the best antidote to sorrow, my dear, Watson, and I have a piece of work for us both tonight which, if we can bring it to a successful conclusion, will in itself justify a man’s life on this planet.” (EMPT.)

Thank you, Ely Liebow for so admirably portraying this true account of Dr. Bell’s life. It allowed me to consider just what Doyle left out of Holmes. I invite the Sherlockian, Holmesian, Doylist, and Watsonian community to consider: What if Holmes was even more like Bell?

All quotes except for the one from “The Adventure of the Empty House” and Jeremy Brett, are from Ely Liebow’s remarkable book, “Dr. Joe Bell, Model for Sherlock Holmes.” Popular Press, 2007.

James, William. “What is an Emotion?” 1884 essay. Quote: “A purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity.”

Scott, Thomas (1747–1821.) The Force of Truth. Quote: “Growth is the only evidence of life.”

Mill, John Stewart. “Utilitarianism”. Fraser’s Magazine, 1861. The pleasures of the imagination and the gratification of the higher emotions are essential to life and happiness.

The University of Edinburgh Medical School. https://www.ed.ac.uk/

Originally published in the Sherlock Holmes Society of India Journal. Proceedings of the Pondicherry Lodge ©2019.

Gretchen Altabef is an MX author of Sherlock Holmes Novels and strives to emulate Doctor John Watson’s and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary styles as much as is possible. Her first novel was Sherlock Holmes: These Scattered Houses. Both a historical novel and murder mystery, solved as only Holmes can. The sequel is Sherlock Holmes: Remarkable Power of Stimulus. It is a Sherlock Holmes adventure with heart.

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