Back to School with Arthur Conan Doyle

It’s September, which means those of us who are students or teachers are back at school. So we’re writing this month about teachers and those influenced by them.

You may know that Arthur Conan Doyle was a medical student before he became a writer. But did you know that he credited two of his professors as the inspiration for his greatest creation?

Young Arthur Conan Doyle studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh under Doctor Joseph Bell, a surgeon famed for his remarkable diagnosis skills. These skills made Bell an early practitioner of forensic science. He was brought in as an expert by the police for several investigations, including the Jack the Ripper murders.

In addition to his professional work, Bell was an outstanding lecturer, and made a lasting impression on Doyle. “The student must be taught to observe,” Bell implored his not-so-observant students. The young Doyle assisted Bell for a while, playing Watson to the great medical detective.

Here’s what Doyle said about his professor:

[Bell] was extraordinarily quick at deductive work. He would look at the patient, he would hardly allow the patient to open his mouth, but he would make his diagnosis of the disease, and also very often of the patient’s nationality and occupation and other points, entirely by his power of observation. So naturally, I thought to myself, “well, if a scientific man like Bell was to come into the detective business, he wouldn’t do these things by chance, he’d get the thing by building it up scientifically.”

Holmes even looked like Bell, with his twinkling eyes, aquiline nose and forceful, expressive energy.

Doyle also acknowledged Henry Littlejohn as an inspiration for Holmes. As Edinburgh’s Surgeon of Police, Littlejohn was a pioneer in forensic science, and as Edinburgh’s first Medical Officer of Health, he made significant contributions to the field of public health. Like Bell, Littlejohn was involved in police investigations, appeared as an expert witness in murder trials and oversaw postmortems. He also he happened to be Doyle’s forensic medicine teacher in medical school.

So those of you who teach, watch out – you may end up inspiring a classic literary character!


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