Joseph Bell, JP, DL, FRCS (2 December 1837 – 4 October 1911) was a famous Scottish lecturer at the medical school of the University of Edinburghin the 19th century. He is perhaps best known as an inspiration for the literary character Sherlock Holmes. He was a great-grandson of Benjamin Bell, a forensic surgeon. In his instruction, Bell emphasized the importance of close observation in making a diagnosis. To illustrate this, he would often pick a stranger and, by observing him, deduce his occupation and recent activities. These skills caused him to be considered a pioneer in forensic science (forensic pathology in particular) at a time when science was not yet widely used in criminal investigations.
Arthur Conan Doyle met Bell in 1877, and served as his clerk at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Doyle later went on to write a series of popular stories featuring Sherlock Holmes, whom Doyle stated was loosely based on Bell and his observant ways. Bell was aware of this inspiration and took some pride in it. According to Irving Wallace (in an essay originally in his book The Fabulous Originals but later republished and updated in his collectionThe Sunday Gentleman) Bell was involved in several police investigations, mostly in Scotland, such as the Ardlamont Mystery of 1893, usually with forensic expert Professor Henry Littlejohn.
Bell studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh Medical School and received an MD in 1859. Bell served as personal surgeon to Queen Victoriawhenever she visited Scotland. He also published several medical textbooks. Bell was a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, a Justice of the Peace, and a Deputy Lieutenant.
Joseph Bell died on 4 October 1911. He was buried at the Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh alongside his wife, Edith Katherine Erskine Murray, and their son Benjamin, and next to his father's and brother's plots.
Bell wrote the book "Manual of the Operations of Surgery".
In the BBC television series Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes was a fictionalised account of Doyle's time as Bell's clerk. The series exaggerated Bell's criminal investigations as well as the degree to which Holmes was based on Bell (played by Ian Richardson), and positioned Doyle in the role of a Dr. Watson to Bell's Holmes. The original one-off production – which led to the later series – was released on DVD and VHS in the US in 2003, titled Dr. Bell and Mr. Doyle – The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes.
In 2006, Stone Publishing House published a book aimed at schoolchildren titled Dr Joseph Bell – the original Sherlock Holmes. Illustrated by Cheryl Ives, it was written by Kent historian Dr Robert Hume, who had previously authored books about Christopher Columbus and Perkin Warbeck.
In the Doctor Who episode "Tooth and Claw", the time travelling adventurer known as the Doctor identifies himself as an ex-student of Dr Bell to Queen Victoria.
The comic book Les dossiers du Professeur Bell by Joann Sfar is about the (fictional) supernatural adventures of Dr. Bell.
In episode 11, Season 5, of the Fox TV show House M.D., Wilson presents House with Joseph Bell's Manual Of the Operations of Surgery as a Christmas gift. The character of House is based on Holmes, who, as noted, was based in turn on Bell. When House's staff begin to wonder what dark meaning to put to House throwing away the expensive Christmas gift of the book, an amused Wilson begins making up a story about House having a brief, unhappy affair with a nurse named Irene Adler whom he will always consider "the woman".
A bronze plaque was erected to Joseph Bell at 2 Melville Crescent, Edinburgh on 8th October 2011, marking the centenary of his death. Organised and funded by The Japan Sherlock Holmes Club, the building, which was his home for his final decades, is now the Japanese Consulate in Edinburgh.
The plaque explains Bell's connection to Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes.
The unveiling ceremony was attended by the several persons involved in the erection of the plaque (principally Mr Takeshi Shimizu) and representatives of various Sherlock Holmes Clubs and Societies. All present gave a short speech on their connection to either Holmes or the project, with a piece from Prof. Owen Dudley Edwards.
The plaque was created and cast by Powderhall Bronze of Edinburgh.