Sunday, February 26, 2012

Was Sherlock Holmes a Myth or Real?

Who is Sherlock Holmes? Is he a mere character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? Has Holmes ever existed? If so who is he?

“…The idea amused me. What should I call the fellow?” thought Conan Doyle. Of course, he called him Sherlock Holmes after an English Cricketer, and Oliver Wendell Holmes {1809-1894}, an American physician, professor, and author.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930)
A young man intending to be a doctor took his degree from Edinburgh University in 1881 and set up his practice as an eye-specialist in suburb of Portsmouth and waited for patients. Six years later, this struggling doctor was still waiting. Without patients and utterly in need of money he decided to try his hand at writing.

He then vividly went back to his student days at Edinburgh University to recollect events and anecdotes, and then contemplated looking at the photograph of his teacher which he kept on the mantelpiece of his study. Something struck him. He took up the pen and sharpened his wits. That’s it.

Thus was born Sherlock Holmes. And the young doctor was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930). The rest is history. Sherlock Holmes attained immortality – a sort of legendary cult-figure with a famous address behind him. 221 B Baker Street. It is believed, thousands of people have addressed their problems to this fictitious address desperately seeking solutions.

But sadly what is not history and what is buried under the debris of history of literature is, is the life and times of real Sherlock Holmes. Yes, he is none other than the creator’s own teacher at Edinburgh University. He is Dr. Joseph Bell.

Dr, Joseph Bell (1837-1911)
Dr. Joseph Bell (1837-1911), the eminent surgeon and medical instructor who had enthralled his students and friends with his deductive acrobatics in the Royal infirmary wards, in the dispensaries, especially in the out-patient department where ailing citizens visited him.

“Dr. Bell would sit in his receiving room,” Doyle once told an interview, “with a face like a Red Indian, and diagnose people as they came in. Before they even opened their mouth he would tell them their symptoms and give them the details of their past life; and hardly ever would he make a mistake. With a woman especially, the observant doctor can often tell by noticing her exactly what part of her body she is going to talk about.” Doyle concluded.

Once, a laborer with a spinal complaint has come to meet Dr. Bell. “Your back must ache badly, but carrying a load of bricks won’t improve it.” The laborer was stunned and asked Dr. Bell to tell as to how he guessed that he was a bricklayer by trade. And Dr. Bell replied by pointing to the laborer’s peculiar rough horny hands.

Upon seeing another newcomer, Dr. Bell remarked, “A cobbler, I see.” When his students put quizzical faces he explained, “that the inside of the knee of the man’s trouser was worn; that was where the man had rested the lap-stone, a peculiarity only found in cobblers.

On another occasion, a tall weather-beaten patient entered the ward. Dr. Bell looked at him and turning to his students said, “Gentlemen, a fisherman.” Before the students could react, Dr. Bell smilingly explained, “It is a very hot summer’s day, yet the patient is wearing top boots. No one but a sailor would wear them in this season. The shade of his tan shows him to be a coast sailor; a knife scabbard too beneath his coat, the kind used by fishermen. To prove the correctness of these deductions, I noticed several minute fish scales adhering to his clothes and hands.” Dr Bell ended leaving his students stunned.

One particular feat made a lasting impression on his ever-stunned students. Once Dr. Bell was seated at his desk with his internees and dresser, an old lady with a handbag hanging on her arm entered. Dr. Bell gave a quick glance and to the amazement of his students said to the woman, “Where is your cutty pipe?”

Her bag was on her left arm and instinctively she grasped it with her right hand. This act did not pass unnoticed by Dr. Bell. “Don’t mind the students”, said Bell to the embarrassed woman, “Show me the pipe.” After a few minutes she put her hand into the bag and produced an odd short-stemmed much-used clay pipe.

Now Dr. Bell turning to his students asked, “Now how do I know she had a cutty pipe?” No answer.

“Did you notice the ulcer on her lower lip and the glossy scar on her left cheek indicating a superficial burn? All marks of a shot-stemmed clay pipe held close to the cheek while smoking – the characteristic attitude of peasant woman smoking clay pipe as she sits by her fireside.” Dr. Bell explained smilingly.

No doubt every one of his students was impressed at these feats. But of all the Edinburgh University undergraduates, it was Conan Doyle who was the most deeply impressed by his incredible mentor and his deductive prowess; and the profound influence it had on him came to the fore when he decided to take up writing.

“I thought of my old teacher Joe Bell, of his eagle face, of his curious ways, of his eerie trick of spotting details,” Doyle recollected in his autobiography. “If he were a detective he would surely reduce this fascinating but unrecognized business to something nearer to an exact science. It was surely possible in real life, so why should I not make it possible in fiction. It is all very well to say that a man is clever, but the reader wants to see examples of it – such examples as Dr. Bell gave us everyday in the wards. The idea amused me. What should I call the fellow?”

Of course, he called him Sherlock Holmes after an English Cricketer, and Oliver Wendell Holmes {1809-1894}, an American physician, professor, and author. Now to give features and a face Conan Doyle again remembered his old mentor. Dr. Bell was forty-four when Doyle saw him last. “He was thin, wiry, and dark, with high-nosed acute face, penetrating grey eyes, angular shoulders and a jerky way of walking. His voice was high and discordant.” With this as his model, Sherlock Holmes became the familiar, tall, stooped, hawk-faced, intense and inscrutable human bloodhound.

Books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
And Sherlock Holmes, solving baffling crimes in story after story with his deductive and analytical acrobatics went on to become a fictional cult-figure. Thanks to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The success of Sherlock Holmes only too pleased Dr. Bell. But very often an Edinburgh graduate would recognize who Sherlock Holmes was.

And Sir Arthur Conan Doyle too gladly confessed to the enquirers, the press and the world that the prototype for Sherlock Holmes was indeed Dr. Joseph Bell; and went on to give graphic examples of his teacher’s “intuitive powers {which} were simply marvelous.”

Once when a young Doyle was working as Dr. Bell’s student assistant, a patient entered and sat down. Dr. Bell asked, “Did you like your walk over the side of the town?”

“Why yes, did your honor see me?”

Doyle who was listening was stunned. Dr. Bell then explained, “On a showery day such as that had been, the reddish clay at bare parts of the golf links adheres to the boots, and a tiny part is bound to remain. {As such} there is no clay anywhere else”{except that side of the town which the gentleman has come from}, concluded Dr. Bell.

Years later, in the adventure ‘The Five Orange Pips’ Sherlock Holmes repeats the same feat. But the most famous incident of which Doyle was very much impressed was when a civilian out-patient, a total stranger to Dr. Bell, came into his ward. In silence Dr. Bell studied the visitor, and then said, “Well my man, you have served in the army.” Not long discharged; a non-commissioned officer? Stationed at Barbados?”

To all these questions the wide-eyed stranger replied meekly, “Yes and yes.”

Dr. Bell then turned to his awe-struck students. “You see gentlemen, the man was a respectful man, but he 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, and he is obviously Scottish. As a Barbados, his complaint is elephantiasis which is West Indian and not British.

This incident too made its way to Sherlock Holmes through, ‘The Greek Interpreter’.

There were many such instances and anecdotes that Conan Doyle used in his sixty classic stories. In fact, it is reported that Doyle always requested Dr. Bell for plots and incidents that had Holmes flavor. And Dr. Bell happily obliged and faithfully sent along such ideas and plots which thrilled the readers worldwide.

Throughout his life, Dr. Joseph Bell continually amazed his circle with the observation game. Even the Crown was very much impressed by his detecting genius and sought his services as consultant detective. And for two decades he worked, investigated and testified for the Crown thereby solving even the most complex of crimes.

 Dr. Joseph Bell went on to become a legend in his own right, even before he became known as Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle also did contribute and through Sherlock Holmes popularized his teacher’s amazing talents at the game of observation and deduction.

Dr. Bell at the age of 16 entered Edinburgh University and graduated before he was twenty-one. Two years later he became a house surgeon in the Royal infirmary, and at twenty-six he was lecturing in the extra-mural medical school. He married at the age of twenty-eight. It was a happy but short-lived marriage. His wife died nine years later. He lived to his end a widower. Dr. Bell was reserved and hated spotlight.

Dr. Bell preached what he practiced. He often told his students that the development of observation was a necessity to doctors and detectives and strongly recommended laymen to learn this thrilling sport.

His favorite demonstration before each new class in this regard was that he used to take up a tumbler filled with an amber-colored liquid. “This contains a very potent drug”. Dr. Bell would say, “To the taste it is intensely bitter. Now I want to see how many of you developed your powers of perception. Now I want you to test it by smell and taste. I don’t ask anything of my students which I wouldn’t be willing to do myself. I will taste it before passing it round.” said Bell.

Dr. Bell would then dip a finger into the liquid, put his finger to his mouth, suck it, and grimace. He would then pass the tumbler round. Each student likewise would dip a finger into the vile concoction, suck it, and make a sour face. When the tumbler had made the rounds Dr. Bell would gaze at the assembly and begin laughing. “Gentlemen, Gentlemen,” he would say, “I am deeply grieved to find that not one of you developed this power of perception, which I so often speak about. For, if you had watched me closely, you would have found that, while I placed my forefinger in the bitter medicine, it was the middle finger which found its way into my mouth!”

Most of all he possessed a wonderful sense of humor. When visitors begged him to recount tales of his deductive prowess, he used to relate the story of his visit to a bed-ridden patient.

“Aren’t you a bandsman?” Dr. Bell asked, standing over the patient.

“Aye,” admitted the sick-man.

Dr. Bell turned cockily to his students. “You see gentleman, I am right. It is this quite simple. This man had a paralysis of the cheek muscles, the result of too much blowing at wind instruments. We need only inquire to confirm.” Dr Bell said to his students proudly. Now turning to the patient he asked, “What instrument do you play my man?” The sick-man got up on his elbows, “Big Drum Doctor!” Now this time the students had a last laugh.

Dr. Joseph Bell, the prototype for Sherlock Holmes died at the age of seventy four in 1911.

1 comment:

  1. Sherlockians all over the world owe a great amount of debt to Dr Bell, without whom there would most probably have been no Sherlock Holmes :)

    Great post and pictures!