A look at Doyle's real-life inspirations, on the occasion of his 150th birth anniversary.
O utside the stately-looking Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh is a notice that no fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle can afford to miss. “Conan Doyle and Joseph Bell: The Real Sherlock Holmes,” it says. Who, after all, will pass up an opportunity to learn more about perhaps the greatest detective in fiction and his immensely talented creator?
The famous medical school is a solemn-looking building making someone like me, who has as little connection to medicine as an artist to a scalpel, feel like an interloper on entering the premises. But I think of The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Speckled Band and the rest of the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, take courage and mount the stairs. I offer the entrance fee to the friendly lady at the ticket counter and walk in. The exhibition occupies just a portion of the Surgeons' Hall Museum. But, as I emerge hours later at closing time, I know it is a small space packed with information.
Who was Joseph Bell? Dr. Joseph Bell was a brilliant surgeon and outstanding teacher. He was Doyle's professor and mentor when he was a student of medicine in this college.
And it was to Bell that Doyle owed the idea of detection by logic. Doyle was appointed by Bell as outpatient clerk at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh in 1878.Viewers are offered fascinating glimpses of the surgeon's powers of observation and analyses at the exhibition. As soon as a patient entered, Bell would gather a lot about him even before he spoke a word while his students stood agape with wonder and admiration: “Well, my man, I see you've served in the army... not long discharged… a Highland regiment… a non-commissioned officer… stationed at Barbados.” He would later explain to his astonished students how he came by the deduction: “You see gentlemen, the patient is a respectful man but did not remove his hat — they do not do this in the army. He would have learned this civilian habit had he been long discharged. He has an air of authority and is obviously Scottish. As to Barbados, his complaint is elephantiasis which could be West Indian but not European…”
The display in the exhibition begins with a poem by Doyle about exams at the college followed by a manuscript of his novel — untitled and unpublished — now in the collection of the British Library. A copy of his clinical notes in a neat hand gives us a picture of him as a student. This is followed by a list of the places associated with Doyle in Edinburgh — the place he was born, the school he went to, and the various addresses where he resided. A selection of his works is put up. We learn how “all his life Doyle stored away memories of events, people, places , names... to be unpacked later for his writing”. It mentions his eye for detail, and “how his experiences from boyhood and early manhood in Edinburgh provided the creative cargo he used”.
There are beautiful photographs and visuals at the exhibition: Conan Doyle aged six with his father Charles Altamont Doyle, an artist and draughtsman who was addicted to drink; young Doyle with his grandfather, a well-known Irish political satirist; the portrait of his Irish mother Mary Foley who passed on her love of history to her son; Doyle at Stonyhurst College with his schoolmates; depicting his love of sports, especially cricket, his graduation.
Brought up in a tradition of storytelling, Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories appeared in the Strand Magazine (the copy is displayed here). Later, he wrote to Bell, acknowledging, “It's most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes.”
The exhibition also provides corresponding photographs of Dr. Bell, and details of his family and career. Bell had sharp features and wore a deerstalker hat and a cloak during his bird-watching trips. The viewer's attention is drawn to how Holmes is very much like him.
One also learns that Prof .Challenger, who first appeared in The Lost World, had features of Doyle's Edinburgh lecturers such as Prof. William Rutherford. And the character of Prof. Summerlee in the Challenger stories was based on Dr. James Spence, Prof. of Surgery, who was President of Royal College of Surgeons from 1867 to 69.
A remarkable item at the exhibition is the only known audio recording of Doyle. The film is by Fox Movietone News, 1929. In this the writer speaks of his old teacher Bell, his inspiration for Holmes. The character of Holmes became so real for the reading public that the writer mentions letters from fans asking for the detective's autograph and from women wanting to be Holmes' housekeeper!
The character of the detective's friend Dr. Watson was based on that of a leading surgeon from the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. He was Patrick Heron (Dr.) Watson, who was born in Edinburgh and was house surgeon to James Spence. An MD from the University of Edinburgh, he went to Crimea as assistant surgeon with the Royal Artillery.
As I leave the exhibition, a distinguished-looking man smiles and remarks about the notes I'm jotting down. When I introduce myself, he does the same — “I'm a volunteer at this exhibition and a retired surgeon of this institution”.
“Dr. Watson”. Seeing my jaw drop, he smiles, “I'm a descendant of Dr. Watson who inspired the character in the Sherlock Holmes stories”. I walk out in a daze, promising to send him a copy of the article when published.