MR Week: The Story of Dr. Joseph Bell

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Growing up, my favorite fictional hero was Sherlock Holmes. The creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and one of the most revered literary figures in history, he set the standard for all detectives to come. Most are familiar with Holmes but some do not know of his remarkable source of inspiration: Dr. Joseph Bell, a renowned physician, professor, editor, and writer famed for his deductive reasoning and his skills as an early forensic pathologist. Conan Doyle studied medicine under him in Edinburgh and was so impressed by his ability to observe minute details about a person’s appearance and deduce information from it that he forever embodied him into the immortal character of Sherlock Holmes.

Among his contemporaries in the Victorian era, Dr. Bell was truly remarkable. He achieved tremendous success at a relatively young age by becoming a professor and a senior surgeon in the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh; he was involved in establishing the first nursing school system in Scotland, and responsible for writing some of the first college medical textbooks; he was a prolific writer of lectures, monographs, and medical essays, as well as the editor of the Edinburgh Medical Journal, one of the world’s leading medical magazines. He was educated alongside Robert Louis Stevenson, mentored Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, corresponded with Florence Nightingale, and was a favorite of Queen Victoria. He was a peacemaker, a voice of calm reason among the flaring tempers of his colleagues when it came to permitting women to attend medical school, and a man of absolute faith. Though devastated by the loss of his wife (his hair literally turned white overnight), Bell wrote “The blow is such a fearful one in its suddenness and intensity that I cannot realize it in the least, but I would honestly take it as sent by God for a good purpose in His infinite wisdom and love and would not rebel. Indeed I love my Savior because he has been so good to my darling… and as I believe giving her an entrance into His kingdom.” He was renowned for his bedside manner (forthright but compassionate) and noted for his generosity.

And of course there is his assistance to the Crown in criminal cases. Bell was involved in solving what Scottish papers called “the biggest crime of the decade” in 1893. It revolved around a tutor who insured his student for a large sum of money and then twice tried to kill him in an “accident.” At the request of the court, Bell and his associate Dr. Littlejohn exhumed and autopsied the body and revealed that the fatal injury did not match the witness’s testimony. Bell was dubbed by the papers as “the original Sherlock Holmes.”

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Bell’s keen instincts and attention to detail made him invaluable in criminal cases. In 1888, a series of brutal attacks on prostitutes left London stunned. Scotland Yard was desperate to find the culprit and elicited the advice and conclusions of notable specialists across the United Kingdom. Bell and an associate were sent the information the police had gathered, studied the case separately, and when they exchanged their findings were gratified to see that they had reached the same conclusion. While officially the murders were never solved, it is notable that within a week of Bell submitting his hypothesis, the Ripper killings ended.

The extent of Dr. Bell’s influence on Doyle’s work is unknown but a few years ago David Pirie wrote a new series of detective stories based on the two men. The first installment aired as Dr. Bell & Mr. Doyle but the four subsequent episodes are entitled Murder Rooms. In the first episode, Doyle meets Bell at medical school and is caught up in a sinister series of events that include a room full of blood, attacks on women, and coins left at seemingly unrelated crime scenes. The series uses memorable events from Doyle’s stories in new ways and blends fact with fiction. The author reveals a shrewd familiarity with both men and Victorian morality. It uses the struggle of women to be accepted into medical professions as its backdrop, showing the difficulties and prejudices they faced from students and professors alike. It explores the start of Doyle’s fascination with the occult when an investigation leads him to a medium, and melds truth and fabrication in such clever ways it’s difficult to differentiate between them. Pirie permits us to be intimate with his characters and as a result we grow to know them well. Bell is relentless in his quest for justice but careful to work in the best interest of his patients, a man who has experienced great loss but is firm in his belief that good must triumph over evil. Doyle begins as an idealist who discerns the true nature of evil and is horrified by it. He is tormented by grief over the incarceration of his father in a mental asylum.

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While the series features many wonderful actors, Ian Richardson dominates it. A highly respected stage and screen actor, he brings a depth and humanity to Bell that goes beyond a script to the heart of a man clever enough to know the truth and wise enough not to always reveal it. He acts with his eyes as much as his voice and presence, expressing much in as little as a swift glance.

This series accomplishes something none other has managed to do: introduce us to Sherlock Holmes in an entirely new way. The differences / similarities are notable, with Bell revealing more kindness and compassion than his literary counterpart. The real Dr. Bell was both flattered and somewhat irritated with comparisons between him and the Great Detective; he was proud of Doyle’s accomplishment, but the fame that fell upon him as a result at times was problematic and intrusive. The series represents him well but glosses over what a truly successful man he was in his professional career, as well as leaves out all references to his faith.

While Holmes is still my favorite sleuth, there is a special place in my heart for Dr. Bell, both as inspiration for him and as a remarkable man in his own right.

* I first published this in the Nov / Dec 2011 issue of Femnista. Read this and other back issues here.

3 Replies to “MR Week: The Story of Dr. Joseph Bell”

  1. This is fascinating!!! I knew of Dr. Bell and the way he inspired Doyle’s characterization of Holmes, of course, but I had no idea he was involved in investigating the Jack the Ripper case! Wow. Okay, you’ve sold me, I will try to see this. Just to clarify… I would have to get this AND this to have the whole series?

    Also, I tagged you here. Play if you like.

    1. Yay! I’ve recruited another fan! (Well… HOPEFULLY a fan.)

      Yes, the first is the whole series, which you need to watch AFTER the individual pilot. Disclaimer of sorts: the pilot and one episode of the series has corpse nudity in it (brief but it still bears mentioning). Otherwise it’s pretty clean. 🙂

      Ooh, nifty! Thanks, I’ll do it next week. 🙂

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