Liebow, Ely M. 1924–2007

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Liebow, Ely M. 1924–2007

(Ely Liebow)


Born 1924; died of pancreatic cancer, March 30, 2007; married; wife's name Phoebe; children: Wendy, Cynthia, Franette. Education: University of Chicago, M.A.; Rutgers University, Ph.D.


Wayne State University, Detroit, MI, instructor; Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago, professor emeritus of English. Military service: U.S. Navy medical corpsman during World War II.


Dr. Joe Bell: Model for Sherlock Holmes, Bowling Green University Popular Press (Bowling Green, OH), 1982, reprinted, 2007.

(Editor, with Art Scott) John Nieminski: Somewhere a Roscoe, Borgo Press (San Bernardino, CA), 1987.

August Harvest, Magico, 1994.


Known as a passionate scholar of the literature involving Sherlock Holmes, Ely M. Liebow, a professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University, made a significant contribution to the field with the book Dr. Joe Bell: Model for Sherlock Holmes. As its title indicates, the book argues that Arthur Conan Doyle's famous fictional detective was modeled, in whole or in part, on an actual person, the Scottish surgeon Dr. Joseph Bell. Described by Baker Street Irregular member Ray Betzner, as quoted in a Chicago Tribune obituary of Liebow written by Trevor Jensen, Bell was a ‘rock star among surgeons’ in his time, noted for his brilliant observations. Among his students was Conan Doyle, who acknowledged using Bell as one of his models when he created the character of Sherlock Holmes.

The first full-length biography of its subject, Dr. Joe Bell traces the life and career of the surgeon, including his time at Edinburgh University and the Royal Infirmary and his work training nurses and medical students, and his relationship with Conan Doyle, who completed his medical studies at Edinburgh University in 1881. In the view of Booklist reviewer George Cohen, Liebow's portrait reveals Bell to have been a ‘respectable Victorian with a scalpel-sharp mind and amazing powers of observation.’ These characteristics, indeed, became the most celebrated traits of Sherlock Holmes, whose ability to solve complex crimes through deduction made the fictional detective into an icon. According to Cohen, Liebow's biography provides a ‘rich understanding’ of Bell and of his relationship with Conan Doyle.

Liebow himself had some medical background as a member of the U.S. Navy medical corps during World War II, but abandoned the idea of a career in dentistry to become a professor of English at Northeastern Illinois University. Specializing in British literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Liebow also studied the Bible, medieval literature, Yiddish literature, and detective fiction. His interest in the Holmes stories, which he had first read in his youth, emerged when he began reading them to his children. Increasingly fascinated, Liebow joined the Baker Street Irregulars, a Sherlock Holmes appreciation club, and could even be seen around campus wearing a deerstalker's cap like the one often associated with the detective character. He traveled to England and Scotland to research Dr. Joe Bell, examining written accounts and interviewing Bell's relatives. The book, Baker Street Irregular Otto Penzler told obituary writer Jensen, is a ‘pretty serious work of scholarship."

Liebow remained active after his retirement, teaching the class ‘Crime and Punishment: Dickens, Doyle, Dostoevsky and Fielding’ every year until 2006. He died in 2007, of pancreatic cancer.



Booklist, April 15, 2007, George Cohen, review of Dr. Joe Bell: Model for Sherlock Holmes, p. 17.

Wilson Library Bulletin, November, 1982, Jon Breen, review of Dr. Joe Bell, p. 238.



Chicago Tribune, April 12, 2007, Trevor Jensen, ‘Ely M. Liebow."