The Real “Sherlock Holmes” was Autistic

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The fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, displayed most of the characteristics of autistic hyperfocus, especially including (a) astute powers of observation, (b) brilliant at deductive reasoning, (c) phenomenal memory for details, (d) unemotional when speaking, (e) asocial, and (f) delivered monologues. 

In 2004, the creator of the medical drama “House” starring actor Hugh Laurie, described it as “a subtle homage to Sherlock Holmes. The setting for this TV series thus takes the character back to his medical roots.

Arthur Conan Doyle explicitly modeled his Sherlock Holmes character after autistic medical professor Joseph Bell (1837-1911). Bell was the first Scottish scientific surgeon and a pioneer in forensic pathology. He had astute powers of observation, which he loved to display by picking a stranger at random and deducing his previous history, habits, nationality, occupation, and recent travels, based on observation alone. Bell could tell by looking at hand calluses whether a person was a carpenter, a mason, or a church bell ringer – and from his walking gait whether he was a soldier or a sailor.

Bell was asked by Edinburgh’s police force to assist them in solving crimes. In 1988, the Scotland Yard consulted Joseph Bell in its hunt for Jack the Ripper. It is said that Bell came up with a name of a suspect, but the name was never made public.

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2 Responses

  1. Sorry, while I agree with nearly all of this article, “autistic medical professor Joseph Bell (1837-1911)” is inaccurate. There is no definitive proof that he was autistic, indeed the word was only coined in 1910. Since all evidence is from other peoples descriptions, it cannot be said definitively that he was autistic.

    1. I have diagnosed Joseph Bell retroactively, using the stringent criteria explained in my peer reviewed article, “Redefining Autism” published in the Journal of Neurology, Psychiatry and Brain Research 2020, Issue O2. – David Rowland

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