Fact of the Month

February: Sherlock Holmes was (Kind of) a Real Person

By Gideon Tyree

A recent poll reminded me of Sherlock Holmes, the fictional detective who used his amazing powers of deductions to find seemingly impossible conclusions in the smallest of clues. However, Holmes is not quite so fictional as he seems.

Although no detective named Sherlock Holmes ever existed, he was based on a real person: Dr. Joseph Bell. Bell was a professor at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, England, which was a medical school. It was there that a young Arthur Conan Doyle was impressed by Dr. Bell’s astounding ability to tell students their entire life story when first meeting them–so impressed, in fact, that he would later write a novel, A Study in Scarlet, featuring a detective based on him. The novel was unsuccessful at first, but the editor of an American magazine liked it and hired Doyle to write another. This one was more successful, and Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick, Dr. Watson, went on to become household names.

Dr. Joseph Bell

Dr. Bell would often deduct the occupations of new students and also tried to teach his students to use observation and deduction to diagnose patients, though none were ever as proficient as he. However, although Sherlock Holmes owes his origin to Dr. Bell, Doyle was the real detective. Doyle would later ask his former teacher for ideas, but Bell proved make a poor detective. Arthur Conan Doyle, however, helped to solve several real world mysteries.

Sherlock Holmes, although fictional, was based on a real person. During the height of his fame, however, many people thought he was a real person. Holmes’ fictional apartment received countless letters asking for his assistance; when he retired to the country in a later book, housekeepers began applying for a job. It shows the genius of Arthur Conan Doyle that he could make a fictional character seem almost real.