Book Review: Dr. Joe Bell

Dr. Joe Bell: Model for Sherlock Holmes

By Ely M. Liebow

Published December 1982, reprinted March 2007

University of Wisconsin Press

286 pp.

ISBN 0-879-72198-7

Date reviewed: September 25, 2007

Originally reviewed at: BookReview.com

His long fingers forming a steeple in front of him, the tall man looked at the workman in front of him with keen grey eyes. In a calm and intelligent voice, before the workman even said a word, he asked if he had enjoyed his walk through the southern part of town. When asked how he had come to that conclusion, the man simply replied “It was elementary,” and pointed out how the mud on his boots betrayed his previous location.

If you identified the tall man as Sherlock Holmes, you’d only be half right. The legendary detective did make this observation on at least one occasion, but it was inspired by another source: Scottish physician Joseph Bell. Known chiefly to Holmes fans and medical historians, Dr. Bell received his public credit in “Dr. Joe Bell,” a 1982 biography by Ely Liebow. Now reprinted 25 years later, its writing has stood the test of time.

Liebow provides a complete picture of the doctor’s life, showing us a man who was startlingly intelligent, extremely pious and devoted to his family. A legend around the hospital for his diagnoses, he was also an avid shooter, respected medical textbook author and an early advocate for hospital cleanliness. Especially interesting is the fact that Bell served as a forensic expert to the British government around the time of Jack the Ripper – and may have even solved the famous series of murders, which ceased a week after his final report.

But the book is of interest to more than just Holmes fans – Bell’s life was irrevocably tied to medicine, and there is a wealth of stories on its procedure in the late 1800’s. These include the development of the Edinburgh hospital and medical school (seen as one of the best in England), as well as the expansion of women in medicine and antiseptic procedures. It’s useful to anyone interested in that timeframe, with historical background on Bell and other key figures.

Liebow’s research is incredibly in-depth, with dozens of sources ranging from poems and medical articles written by the doctor to obituaries and newspaper articles. Despite this amount of detail, the book is extremely accessible thanks to Liebow’s discursive, almost conversational tone – it’s clear that he is both a scholar and a Holmes fan.

That tone is what keeps “Dr. Joe Bell” interesting. Liebow could have written a dry history on a medical practitioner, but he kept it easy to read, casually mentioning on multiple occasions how you can see Bell’s mannerisms overlap with Holmes. Like Holmes and Bell, the book never loses sight of its objective, and gets there in admirable fashion.

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