Can we detect any links between this Edinburgh-born crime writer, his characters, and RSGS?

The theme of the autumn edition of ‘The Geographer’ is the geography and landscapes of fictional crime, and with this in mind, I decided to read up a bit more about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his sources of inspiration. It surprised me to find a host of Edinburgh connections in the late 1800s, so I decided to do some sleuthing in the RSGS archives and elsewhere, to see what I could find…


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1893

Born on 22nd May 1859 at 11, Picardy Place, Edinburgh, Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was the first son of Charles Doyle and Mary Foley, both of Irish descent.  On his father’s side were generations of talented artists and writers;  his mother was an avid reader and a member of Edinburgh’s Philosophical Institution.  Arthur’s earliest memories included frequent house moves within Edinburgh, necessitated by financial straits which were exacerbated by his father’s depression and alcoholism. 

The young Arthur was sent away to schools in Lancashire and Austria, but in 1876 he returned to Edinburgh and enrolled at its prestigious Medical School.  In his memoirs he reflected that he had no particular yearning to be a doctor, but the decision had been arrived at by his family and he was willing to honour their wishes.  Edinburgh University was world-renowned for its medical training:  it had close links with the Royal Infirmary, which opened in 1741, and in the 1800s it had encouraged the brilliant innovations of James Young Simpson and Joseph Lister, who pioneered the surgical use of chloroform and antiseptics respectively.

Old College, Edinburgh, former location of the Medical School

Living at home while attending the University, Arthur embarked on “one long weary grind at botany, chemistry, anatomy, physiology, and a whole list of compulsory subjects.”   Perhaps in protest, his creativity began to break through.  He admitted that his “general aspiration towards literature was tremendously strong”, and a friend urged him to write commercially.  Arthur offered an adventure story called ‘The Mystery of the Sassassa Valley’ to the Chambers’ Journal in Edinburgh, and to his surprise it was accepted.  This was his first short story to be published, and it earned him three guineas.  

In 1881, Arthur passed his finals with “fair but not notable distinction.”  When he left Edinburgh to set up a medical practice in the south of England, he was still far from being a celebrated writer of crime fiction, but in his mind he had accumulated a priceless store of characters and anecdotes, largely culled from first-hand observation of his lecturers. 

Evidence in RSGS archives  

No direct link between RSGS and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has been discovered as yet.   This is probably because Conan Doyle completed his medical training and left Edinburgh before RSGS was founded, in 1884.  Out of interest, during the General Election of 1900 he returned to contest the parliamentary seat of Edinburgh Central as a Liberal Unionist candidate, but he was not elected.  Looking back on the episode in later life, he believed that it was a blessing in disguise.


Dr Joseph Bell


“Observe carefully, deduce shrewdly, and confirm with evidence.”  These words might have come straight out of the mouth of Conan Doyle’s famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, but in fact they were spoken by a real-life surgeon whose name was Dr Joseph Bell. 

Dark-haired and wiry, with penetrating grey eyes and a curiously jerky way of walking, Bell was a surgeon at Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary.  The latest in a long line of distinguished Edinburgh surgeons, he was the great-grandson of Benjamin Bell (1749-1806), who has been described as the father of the Edinburgh school of surgery. Benjamin’s six-volume text book, A System of Surgery (1778), helped to set the standard for modern-day surgical procedure.

Visiting the wards of the Infirmary was an essential part of Conan Doyle’s training, and he soon noticed that Joseph Bell had an exceptional talent for diagnosis - not just of disease, but of occupation and character.  Bell chose Conan Doyle to act as his out-patient clerk, which meant that he was required to take preliminary notes from patients about their symptoms before showing them in to Bell’s chamber.  He then stayed to watch the consultations, which were enlightening in the extreme.  Invariably, Bell would deduce more information from a few quick glances than Conan Doyle had gathered with his questions.  In his memoirs, Conan Doyle recalls a typical example:

[Bell, to a civilian patient]:  ‘“Well, my man, you’ve served in the army.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Not long discharged?”

“No, sir.”

“A Highland regiment?”

“Aye, sir.”

A non-com. [non-commissioned] officer?”

“Aye, sir.”

“Stationed at Barbados?”

“Aye, sir.”

“You see, gentlemen,” he would explain, “the man was a respectful man but did not remove his hat.  They do not in the army, but he would have learned civilian ways had he been long discharged.  He has an air of authority and he is obviously Scottish.  As to Barbados, his complaint is elephantiasis, which is West Indian and not British.”’  (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘Memories and Adventures’, 1924)

Bell’s extraordinary ability was the stuff of legends at the Medical School, and he was sometimes called upon by the Crown prosecutor to assist in solving real crimes.  On at least one occasion, his findings helped to convict a murderer.  

Conan Doyle’s memories of Bell offered rich pickings when, in 1885, he tried his hand at writing crime fiction.  He admired the mystery novels of Edgar Allen Poe and Émile Gaboriau, but it occurred to him that, if Bell were a detective, he would refine the work of sleuthing into an exact science.  Amused by this idea, he cast about for a name for this character and hit on Sherlock Holmes.  Then, realising that Holmes needed a comrade as a foil and a narrator - someone educated but unostentatious - he invented John Watson. 

Sherlock Holmes (portrait by Sidney Paget)

In the first Sherlock Holmes mystery, ‘A Study in Scarlet’, Watson introduces himself to the reader as an army medical officer who has just returned to England from the Middle East.  Holmes’ lightning-fast appraisal of his new flat-mate could have been taken directly from one of Bell’s notebooks: 

‘“You appeared to be surprised when I told you, on our first meeting, that you had come from Afghanistan.”

“You were told, no doubt.”

“Nothing of the sort.  I knew you came from Afghanistan. From long habit the train of thought ran so swiftly through my mind that I arrived at the conclusion without being conscious of intermediate steps.  There were such steps, however.  The train of reasoning ran:  ‘Here is a gentleman of medical type, but with the air of a military man.  Clearly an army doctor, then.  He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair.  He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly.  His left arm has been injured.  He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner.  Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded?  Clearly in Afghanistan.’  The whole train of thought did not occupy a second.”’  (‘A Study in Scarlet’, 1887)

‘A Study in Scarlet’ which appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual, 1887

As Conan Doyle’s books became more popular, readers began to ask where he had got his inspiration for Holmes, and he revealed Bell’s identity.  As a result, Bell experienced a kind of celebrity status, which amused him initially, although in later life he explained that he’d rather be recognised for his surgical work.  Bell wrote an introduction to the 1892 edition of ‘A Study in Scarlet’, and in an interview for the Pall Mall Gazette in 1893 he said that Conan Doyle’s stories encouraged people to keep their eyes open and find new interest in daily life:  “There is a problem, a whole game of chess, in many a little street incident or trifling occurrence if one once learns how to make the moves.”

Evidence in RSGS archives 

We have yet to discover that Joseph Bell was a member of RSGS, or visited our offices.  However, his younger brother, Laurence Anthony Bell, a retired Royal Navy commander, was an RSGS member from 1886, and he signed the Visitors’ Book on three occasions.  His address is given as 1 Eton Terrace, Edinburgh. 

Laurence Anthony Bell's signature in RSGS Visitors' Book


Sir Robert Christison 

Describing Edinburgh University in the early 1870s, Conan Doyle’s biographer, Andrew Lycett, writes:  “If anyone epitomised the spirit of the medical faculty at that time it was Sir Robert Christison, the Professor of Materia Medica and Therapeutics, who was reaching the end of his career and would retire, aged eighty, in 1877.”

Christison was a pioneer of forensic medicine.  His published works, ‘A Treatise on Poison’ (1829) and ‘The Medico-Legal Examination of Dead Bodies’ (1839), were benchmarks in the scientific use of toxicology and post-mortems in court procedure.  In 1828, Christison’s evidence was instrumental in the conviction of murderer William Burke, one-half of Edinburgh’s notorious duo, Burke and Hare, who sold the bodies of their victims for anatomical dissection.

One of Christison’s particular interests was the effect of vegetable alkaloids on the human body. These toxins could be used therapeutically, but unless they were tested on a living, healthy person, no one could prescribe a safe dosage.  Experimenting on himself with the calabar bean, Christison swallowed an almost fatal amount;  he made himself vomit by drinking shaving water, but he was still paralysed for several hours.  As a lecturer, he would enliven his students by playfully firing shots of curare, a poison, from a blowpipe.

Conan Doyle incorporated some of Christison’s obsessions into his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes.  At the beginning of ‘A Study in Scarlet’, Watson’s friend Stamford offers to introduce him to Holmes and then adds a note of caution about some of his quirks:  “I could imagine his giving a friend a little pinch of the latest vegetable alkaloid, not out of malevolence, you understand, but simply out of a spirit of inquiry in order to have an accurate idea of the effects.  To do him justice, I think that he would take it himself with the same readiness.”

Holmes’ fascination for poisons also appears in ‘The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire’ (1924) in which he suspects the victim was killed by “arrows dipped in curare or some other devilish drug…” 

Like Joseph Bell, Christison earned himself near-mythical status at Edinburgh University, but his cold, imperious manner and his opposition of women as medical students made him deeply unpopular in many circles.  It has been suggested that Doyle drew on elements of Christison’s character not just for Sherlock Holmes, but for his arch-enemy, Professor James Moriarty.   Andrew Lycett observes: “It is a mark of [Christison’s] influence that he could serve as a model for both the detective and his nemesis.”

Evidence in RSGS archives 

Sir Robert Christison died two years before RSGS was founded, but one of his sons, Sir Alexander Christison, had a long and active involvement with the Society.   A member of RSGS since 1885, he was present at the Annual Business Meeting in 1887 and was a Council member from 1893 until 1908.  He and his brother, John Christison (also a member) signed the Visitors’ Book in March 1885.  Both give their address as 40, Moray Place, Edinburgh. 

John Christison's signature in RSGS Visitors' Book


Alexander Crum Brown

Conan Doyle had fond memories of his chemistry lecturer at Edinburgh University.  He wrote:  “There was kindly Crum Brown, the chemist, who sheltered himself carefully before exploding some mixture, which usually failed to ignite, so that the loud ‘Boom!’ uttered by the class was the only resulting sound.  Brown would emerge from his retreat with a ‘Really, gentlemen!’ of remonstrance, and go on without allusion to the abortive experiment.” 

Alexander Crum Brown was born in Edinburgh in 1838, and attended the Royal High School before enrolling at Edinburgh University, where he was awarded the Gold medal in Chemistry and Natural Philosophy.  He rose to become Professor of Chemistry at Edinburgh in 1869, holding the chair until his retirement in 1908.

Evidence in RSGS archives

Membership lists show that Crum Brown was an RSGS member from 1884, and newspaper cuttings from The Scotsman mention him as a notable guest at H M Stanley’s inaugural lecture on 3rd December of that year.  He signed the RSGS Visitors’ Book in 1885.  His address was 8 Belgrave Crescent, Edinburgh.

Alexander Crum Brown's signature in RSGS Visitors' Book

With so many colourful Edinburgh characters in his memory bank, it’s hardly surprising that Conan Doyle’s detective became one of the best-loved figures in crime fiction.  Conan Doyle understood Sherlock Holmes so well that he could put himself into his mindset and solve crimes that had baffled the police.  Despite this extraordinary ability, he got so fed up with being mistaken for Holmes that he tried to kill him off by throwing him down the Reichenbach Falls (in ‘The Final Problem’, 1893).  However, such was the public outcry that he felt obliged to resurrect him for another series of stories.

The investigation continues…

We will keep looking for Conan Doyle’s connections in RSGS’s archives, and we would love to hear from you if you have any further information, especially about Dr Joseph Bell. 

Quotes & reference:  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: ‘Memories and Adventures’ (1924);  ‘A Study in Scarlet’ (1887);  ‘The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire (1924).  Pall Mall Gazette, 1893;  Andrew Lycett, ’Conan Doyle - The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes’ (2007);  ‘Wallace Edwards, ‘The Real Sherlock Holmes’ (2013).