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Joseph Bell (1837-1911)

The surgeon Joseph Bell was a Scottish medical lecturer. He had a reputation as an excellent diagnostician for his ability to observe and interpret the appearance of patients. He achieved fame as the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes.

Bell graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1859. He then worked as a house physician and medical lecturer, and became a senior surgeon to the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh in 1872. He supported the professionalisation of nursing and became the founder and Vice-President of the Queen Victoria Jubilee Institute of Nurses. He also campaigned for the admission of women to medical school.

Arthur Conan Doyle met Bell when he studied medicine in Edinburgh. He was impressed with Bell’s ability to observe minute details in a person’s appearance and draw conclusions about the person’s occupation or origin. This diagnostic ability later distinguished Conan Doyle’s most famous fictional character, Sherlock Holmes.

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Bibliography

R B Duthie, ‘Bell, Joseph (1837–1911)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/37175, accessed 30 Sept 2009]

E Liebow, Dr Joe Bell: Model for Sherlock Holmes (Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1982)

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