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Was Sherlock Holmes based on a real person?

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective with the knack for solving crimes through observation and reason was modeled after Dr. Joseph Bell, one of Conan Doyle’s medical school professors. Conan Doyle, born in Scotland in 1859, studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh and went on to work as a physician in England while writing fiction in his spare time. “A Study in Scarlet,” his first novel featuring Sherlock Holmes, debuted in 1887. Conan Doyle eventually published a total of four novels and 56 short stories starring the London-based sleuth, whose keen observation skills were based in part on those of Joseph Bell.

A fellow Scotsman born in 1837, the charismatic Bell dazzled his students with demonstrations in which he was able to determine a patient’s occupation and other personal details just by studying his appearance and mannerisms. In addition to taking class with Bell, Conan Doyle served for a time as his clerk at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, where he got a further look at the older man’s diagnostic methods. Years later, Conan Doyle wrote to Bell: “It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes and though in the stories I have the advantage of being able to place him in all sorts of dramatic positions, I do not think that his analytical work is in the least an exaggeration of some effects which I have seen you produce in the outpatient ward.”

The success of the initial Sherlock Holmes stories enabled Conan Doyle to give up his medical practice in 1891 and devote himself to writing; however, the author grew tired of his creation and killed him off in 1893’s “The Final Problem.” Following a public outcry, Conan Doyle resurrected Holmes and continued to publish stories about the detective until 1927. Conan Doyle, who was knighted in 1902 for penning a lengthy pamphlet defending Britain’s participation in the Boer War, died in England in 1930 (19 years after Bell’s passing). Sherlock Holmes lives on as one of the best-known literary characters in the English language.

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Categories: British History, Literature