Who was Joseph Bell?

I began reading Sherlock Holmes as a teenager and was so intrigued by the clever detective and his deductions that I moved onto other well-known Whodunit authors such as Agatha Christie and P.D James, and decided that this would be my genre as I began my apprenticeship as an author. While working through Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, I decided to try my hand at adapting one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories—The Valley of Fear—into a screenplay. It was a fascinating exercise, and gave me a lot of insight into story construction and characterisation.

I fell out of love with mysteries before I really sank my teeth into writing them myself. I moved onto thrillers and crime and lost interest in those, too, especially when I became queasy at how violent I found some books in the genre. And then I discovered fantasy and have stuck with this genre for ten years. Imagine my surprise when, in the middle of the rewrite of my teen science-fantasy, my brain dished up a cosy mystery story—and then mixed it up with a Steampunk setting, just for fun. Within days I had the synopsis fleshed out, and I’m really excited about this blend of fantasy and mystery.

Joseph Bell, public domain image, source

Joseph Bell, public domain image, source

So, back to the subject of this post—Dr Joseph Bell was the real-life inspiration for Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and I was researching him for Maddie because he features in the backstory as one of Maddie’s ancestors. Doyle was a student of Bell’s in 1877 and was fascinated by his lecturer’s observation skills, which Bell often demonstrated by deducing personal details about strangers. Doyle then began working for Bell as a clerk, and the two men became friends. Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, was published in 1886.

Joseph Bell also served as a physician to Queen Victoria. Interestingly enough, two other of Queen Victoria’s physicians, Sir John Williams and Sir William Gull, are still suspects in the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888. Life almost imitated art, and similarly to his fictional counterpart, Joseph Bell was by that stage in actuality a consultant on a number of police investigations, a trailblazer in the emerging field of forensic science, and would be called as an expert witness in the trial of the Ardlamont murder of 1893. Bell apparently made his own notes on the Jack the Ripper case, and named a prime suspect, but, according to Sherlockian Sherlock, these notes went missing and have never been found. It certainly adds fuel to the rumours that the murders were covered up by someone with a great deal of power.

It must have been an interesting time to live in. And it’s easy to see how Doyle found so much fodder for his fictional detective.

10 thoughts on “Who was Joseph Bell?”

    1. I’ve always been hyper-critical of Holmes portrayed on screen, and so have avoided watching SH movies or TV shows. I think I formed such a solid image of him in my mind that I believed no actor could measure up.

      1. I know what you mean about avoiding movie portrayals of favorite fictional characters, Elle. 🙂

        Great post. We love many of the same authors!


    2. Do you get tangled up in research when you start looking up stuff, Elle? I just Google one little fact sometimes and end up miles away on a totally different topic an hour later.

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