Apologies for this post running a bit long. While I’m a devoted Sherlockian, I’m not particularly a great fan of Conan Doyle himself. However, I find this tidbit from his life to be pretty interesting. So…
Biographers and devotees of Sherlock Holmes have written much regarding who the detective was modeled after. Joseph Bell is widely regarded as the primary inspiration, a belief bolstered by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s own words more than once.
In his autobiography, Memories and Adventures, Doyle said, “I thought of my old teacher Joe Bell, of his eagle face, of his curious ways, of his eerie trick of spotting details. If he were a detective he would surely reduce this fascinating but unorganized business to something nearer to an exact science.”
Add another comment, “Sherlock Holmes is the literary embodiment… of my memory of a professor of medicine at Edinburgh University.”
Now, it has been asserted that one can find bits of Doyle himself in the great detective. His second wife said that her husband had the Sherlock Holmes brain, solving mysteries that puzzled the police.
Son Adrian Conan Doyle vehemently (even militantly) argued that his father was Holmes. Seemingly more likely is that the stolid, patriotic Doctor Watson drew in great part from his creator.
But can we examine one of the sixty Holmes tales and discover biographical pieces of Conan Doyle? As a matter of fact, we need look no further than “The Adventure of the Resident Patient” and Dr. Percy Trevelyan.
Starting a Practice With a Little Help
Trevelyan is a young doctor with great potential, but limited finances. He is struggling along, hoping he can save enough so that in ten years he could open a posh practice in the medical district. Quite unexpectedly, a complete stranger named Blessington arrives at Trevelyan’s room and makes an astonishing offer.
Blessington will let a house, furnish it, pay for maids, and take care of the other expenses. Trevelyan just has to run a successful practice and his benefactor will keep three-quarters of the profit. In addition, Blessington will become the story title’s resident patient, his heart condition cared for by Trevelyan.
The young doctor, barely believing his good fortune, agrees to the deal and quickly establishes a thriving practice. Before Blessington’s arrival, Trevelyan’s future appeared to be one requiring a great deal of hard work before he could harbor any hope of success.
But his generous benefactor had given the doctor the capital needed to become almost an overnight sensation. Was there a Blessington in Arthur Conan Doyle’s life? Well, sort of.
Doyle’s own start in practice also featured a benefactor, though it is quite a different, yet still absorbing, story. In early 1882, Doyle had just completed a stint as a ship’s doctor on an African route. It was not a particularly enjoyable experience and he did not sign on for another tour at sea.
Much like Dr. Watson in A Study in Scarlet, Doyle was ‘free as air’ and back in Edinburgh when he received a telegram from a school friend, George Turnavine Budd. Now a doctor, Budd is a larger than life character in Doyle’s story.
Back before Doyle had gone on the aforementioned sea voyage, Budd had urgently summoned him to Bristol, where Budd’s practice was located. It turns out that Budd had gone bankrupt and hoped Doyle could bail him out. Budd was frustrated to learn that Doyle was in no financial condition to aid him, but then, apparently laughed the whole matter off.
Now, with Doyle back on land and wondering what to do, Budd sent him another telegram, this time from his new practice in Plymouth. Budd, an outrageous individual, told Doyle that he was a huge success, with thirty-thousand patients in the last year and that he wouldn’t even cross the street to see Queen Victoria.
He promised to give Doyle all his visiting and surgery patients, as well as midwifery cases, guaranteeing his friend at least three-hundred pounds the first year.
Though this sounded too good to be true, Doyle packed quickly and headed off to join Budd, much to his mother’s displeasure. Called by her son ‘The Ma’am’, Mary Foley Doyle had a great deal of influence over her son all his life (Doyle can safely be called a mama’s boy). She had never liked Budd and did not trust him now. In retrospect, one has to admire her perceptiveness.
It seems that Budd was a talented doctor, a showman, and a quack all rolled into one. He comes across in writings by Doyle and Doyle’s biographers as a sort of medical Barnum and Bailey. Albeit, a very successful one.
At the end of each day, he would march down the center of the street from his practice, the day’s gold and silver earnings held out in front of him in a bag. The word ‘bombastic’ echoes through the mind when reading about Budd.
Doyle himself acknowledges that his book, The Stark Munro Letters, tells “in very close detail the events of this time,” with Budd being identified as one ‘Cullingworth.’ In fact, it is so accurate (with a few exceptions) that in his autobiography he borrowed from that book, rather than rewriting events using Budd’s actual name. Safe to say, Budd/Cullingworth was as intriguing a character as Doyle ever made up himself.
Doyle saw firsthand Budd’s flamboyant approach to medicine, which consisted of free consultations inevitably concluded with a prescription that was not free. Patients waited hours to see the dynamic Budd and a few were treated by Doyle as the partnership moved forward. As he did throughout his life, Doyle frequently exchanged letters with his mother.
Upon learning from her son that Budd was not going to repay his Bristol creditors, she wrote many uncomplimentary things about the man. This was not an isolated incident and it would have repercussions.
After displaying a rather sour attitude towards his partner for a time, Budd told Doyle that the practice was suffering and it was Doyle’s fault. Upon hearing this, Doyle marched outside and pried his name plate off the front of the building. Emotions cooled a bit and it was agreed that Doyle would depart to start his own practice, aided by a one pound a week loan from Budd, to be repaid when practical.
So, Doyle found himself in Southsea, starting up a practice with the aid of a generous patron. Sort of a long distance Blessington. Except, the true nature of George Budd was about to be displayed and he was anything but generous.
Doyle rented lodgings and a place of business, bought the minimum he needed for both and set up for business, barely getting by financially. Now, Budd sprang his trap. He and his wife had been reading Mary Doyle’s unflattering letters, but they had given no indication of it to Doyle.
Now, having assisted Doyle in becoming irrecoverably committed in Portsmouth and somewhat dependent upon that promised aid of one pound a week, Budd sent a letter to Doyle. In it, Budd accused his ex-partner of having been disloyal under his own roof and severed all ties with him, including not providing the promised loan.
Considering the circumstances, Doyle, in The Stark Munro Letters, is rather charitable in his feelings of Budd. He did send a sharp note to Cullingworth saying that he had always defended the man against his mother’s comments, but now he had to admit that his mother had been right.
This seems relatively restrained in the gravity of the situation. And he sums up Budd by saying “He was a remarkable man and narrowly escaped being a great one.” A reading of The Stark Munro Letters does provide a very entertaining look at a major character in Doyle’s life.
Percy Trevelyan’s nascent medical career receives a significant boost when Blessington sets him up in practice. George Turnavine Budd took an unemployed Arthur Conan Doyle in as a partner and then offered to loan him funds to help his college mate start his own practice (albeit, with an ulterior motive). We can see the root of Blessington’s sponsoring of Trevelyan in Doyle’s own experiences with Budd.
A Resident Patient?
Doyle’s imagination produced Blessington, the criminal turned informer who was judged guilty by his fellow miscreants and murdered in his own rooms while doctor Trevelyan slept under the same roof, unaware of events. Happily, nothing of the like actually happened to Sir Arthur. But he did once have a resident patient and that experience certainly had a major impact on his life.
Having gotten a fledgling medical practice underway in spite of Budd’s attempt to sabotage it, one of Doyle’s neighbors in Southsea was a fellow practitioner, Dr. Pike (‘Porter’ in The Stark Munro Letters). One of Pike’s patients was a young man named James Hawkins, who was vacationing in Southsea with his mother and sister, Louise.
Dr. Pike asked Doyle if he would care to consult on the young man. Unfortunately, it was obvious to both men that Hawkins had cerebral meningitis, a fatal disease at the time. Feeling sympathy for the family, Doyle offered to have James stay with him and receive medical care: an offer which was accepted.
Unfortunately, James died not long after coming under Doyle’s care. However, not all was lost. Doyle saw a great deal of the sister, Louise, nicknamed ‘Touie.’ Love blossomed and the two were wed less than five months after her brother died. Hmm..sounds like a case for Sherlock Holmes.
In fact, Doyle relates in The Stark Munro Letters that the police had received an anonymous letter stating that there was something suspicious about the death. So, when Munro returned from the funeral, a detective was waiting to talk to him.
Fortunately for Munro, Dr. Porter had seen the patient the night before he died and this seemed to satisfy the detective and the matter was dropped. Doyle never gave any indication that this little episode really did occur after his real resident patient died.
Percy Trevelyan began carving out his niche with work on the pathology of catalepsy. The Worthingdon Bank Gang used Trevelyan’s interest in catalepsy to help them distract him by having one of the members fake the illness on a visit. It is his specialty that is used to ‘get to him.’ Trevelyan is no general practitioner, like Watson or Doyle himself.
Well, Doyle was a general practitioner through 1890. Then, on what must have seemed like a whim, he sold his practice and whisked off to Vienna to study. He had decided to become an eye specialist.
Doyle stayed barely two months and later wrote that he could have learned as much in London. The whole thing seemed like a working vacation for a man wanting a breath of fresh air from his job and domestic life. But apparently he did learn enough to become a specialist in this emerging field.
Settled back in London in the March of 1891, he was living in Montague Place, just around the corner from the British museum and the street of Sherlock Holmes before the detective took lodgings with Doctor Watson.
He established an office near the prestigious Harley Street medical district and was acting as a specialist in matters ocular. Whether he actually ever had any patients is an open matter.
Within a half year of setting up shop, he had retired from medicine and was determined to make his living entirely as a writer. So, Doyle was a specialist for a very short time. But a few years later, he drew on this experience when fleshing out the character of Percy Trevelyan.
Interestingly, in The Stark Munro Letters, Munro has one last meeting with Cullingworth. His outrageous friend was moving to South America to be, yes, an eye specialist.
It’s Elementary – Ian Richardson, who played an excellent Holmes, also starred as Jospeh Bell in the British TV series, Murder Rooms. He played a Holmes-like investigator, aided by Arthur Conan Doyle as his Watson. Good show.
Bob Byrne founded www.SolarPons.com, the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’ and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes. And he thinks he’s worth friending on Facebook, though opinions vary.