A doctor who found clues with every patient

Published 7:50 am Wednesday, August 2, 2023

By MSgt. Gene Hays (Ret.)

Everyone has a favorite teacher and Artie Doyle’s favorite teacher was a professor of medicine named Dr. Bell. Artie never forgot his teacher, Dr. Joseph Bell. 

The thing Dr. Bell did so captivating was keeping his students on the edge of their seats. Dr. Bell had begun his career as a hospital attendant and he worked his way up to be the head of his medical school, Edinburgh Medical University. 

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Students who knew Dr. Bell would say he had made it because he knew how to think. He always told his students that they had to learn how to think or they wouldn’t get anywhere. Bell had an outpatient facility and he sometimes invited his students to join him. His students were allowed to stand around and watch the new patients as they came in to see the doctor. 

The stories made Dr. Bell to sound a lot like the storied Dr. Gillespie, squinting over his eyeglasses, and fascinated by his childish wicked expression. He would say to a patient, “Oh, you must be a cork cutter in a factory!” The patient was startled and said he was a cork cutter. The doctor would then look at his students with a wink. 

Dr. Bell had observed a slight callus on one side of the forefinger with a little thickening on the outside of the thumb that allowed him to identify the patient’s malady. One time, Dr. Bell turned to his class before interviewing a new patient. “This man is a cobbler,” he told them. And he was right. The doctor got a glimpse of the man’s trousers. They were worn at the inside of the knee, right where the cobbler’s lapstone sat. 

Some might say that doesn’t sound like medicine, but Dr. Bell was trying to impress upon his students, trying to cultivate the power of observation. “A good doctor has to notice everything,” he told them.

Another time, a brand-new patient came in who had just been discharged from the Army. The doctor had no way of knowing this, with the man dressed in street clothes. Doctor Bell went on to say that the patient had been a non-com officer in a Highland regiment and had been stationed in Barbados. 

The doctor was right on all counts. He told his students it was simple. The man was respectful but didn’t remove his cap. The patient had an air of authority, obviously Scottish. As to Barbados, his complaint was elephantiasis (a condition in which a limb or other part of the body becomes very enlarged due to obstruction of the lymphatic vessels,) which was West Indian, not British. 

Dr. Bell’s students thought that the doctor’s medicine was detective work and Bell had told them that complicated medical mysteries were fascinating. Dr. Bell kept his students spellbound and the first-year medical student, Artie Doyle, was enthralled. Artie went on to become a writer. 

His studies of medicine were significant, but Artie was even influenced more by Dr. Bell’s inductive reasoning. Artie immortalized Dr. Bell in literary history forever. Artie became Sir Arthur Conan Doyle writing about the famous master sleuth Sherlock Holmes.

Gene Hays is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and a local author and historian. Write to him at rghays47@gmail.com