The Inspiration Behind Holmes’ Deduction

“He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen.”

-Dr. Watson, “A Scandal in Bohemia” (Doyle 3)

“You know my method. It is founded upon the observance of trifles.”

-Sherlock Holmes, “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” (Doyle 88)

Dr. Joseph Bell, whose virtuosic use of deductive reasoning inspired the character of Sherlock Hol,es

Dr. Joseph Bell, whose virtuosic use of deductive reasoning inspired the character of Sherlock Holmes

A doctor by trade before he entered the literary field, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle worked alongside a prominent Scottish physician named Dr. Joseph Bell. Bell published textbooks on medicine and taught surgery every Friday at Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary. Doyle attended his classes and eventually became Bell’s outpatient clerk for his lecture sessions. While they worked, Bell often made deductions about his patients. He could quickly deduce a patient’s occupation, home, or preferred method of travel, and he was almost always accurate (O’Brien 12).

As a result of his weekly work with Bell, Doyle became intimately familiar with Bell’s deduction techniques, and began to pick up on visual cues that enabled him to do so as well. When he eventually left the medical field in order to pursue writing, he drew heavily from his experiences with Bell in creating Sherlock Holmes. “Sherlock Holmes is the literary embodiment of a professor of medicine at Edinburgh University,” Doyle admitted in 1892 (O’Brien 12). He also dedicated the first compilation of his stories, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, to Bell in the same year (O’Brien 14).

Holmes and Watson meet Mycroft Holmes in this Paget illustration

Holmes and Watson meet Mycroft Holmes in this Paget illustration from “The Greek Interpreter”

Doyle often directly transferred his experiences with Dr. Bell into his Holmes stories. In a real-life scenario, Bell diagnosed a male patient with elephantiasis. From the man’s accent, Bell deduced that he was Scottish. From his demeanor, which Doyle described as slightly authoritative yet respectful – but not overly so, because the man did not remove his hat – Bell deduced that his patient was recently discharged from the army, but did not hold a rank. Because he was Scottish, Bell surmised that he served in a Highland regiment, and because he had elephantiasis Bell deduced that he had been stationed in Barbados, where the ailment was common (O’Brien  13). Of course, he was right, and Doyle writes a scene similar in his story “The Greek Interpreter.” In this scene, Watson observes Holmes and his equally (if not moreso, according to Holmes himself) perceptive and intelligent brother, Mycroft, as they share a battle of deductions over a man both know to be a soldier (Doyle 438). Holmes and Mycroft deduce that the man is an unranked soldier, recently discharged from India very quickly from a number of different factors: his authoritative demeanor, his tanned skin, his “ammunition boots,” and the way he carries himself (Doyle 438).

Holmes’ use of deductive reasoning reflects the growing acceptance of scientific thought among the relatively conservative European population and the interest the criminal justice sphere had in a new approach to criminal conviction. Rapid urbanization, and therefore an increase in rates of crime, made citizens and governments alike more aware of the need for systematic, dependable reform capable of keeping up with population growth. The growing idea of crime as a biological issue rather than a purely social issue gave reformers the chance to systematically examine the causes and effects of crime in a manner that could only be described as scientific: making inferences, studying subjects, and re-evaluating those inferences based upon empirical data.

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