I am a great fan of Sherlock Holmes stories, and have somewhat of a decent collection of Sherlock Holmes books, stories and publications. Having hovered in mind at the nonexistent 221 b Baker Street home of Sherlock Holmes and after passing by the street many a time, most characters have become familiar and un-elementary, but for the story of the story narrator himself, and so I pondered a bit about the person who was the ultimate catalyst to many of the stories, the esteemed Dr Watson himself….
When Arthur Conan Doyle wrote these stories, what made him bring Watson to the scene? Who is Watson and what is his story? Some elementary deduction and a sustained search for clues in the books will tell you a bit of how and why he entered the scene and his character. But for those not too keen to travel into the vast reaches of the literary or the inter(net)world…here goes….
But to start with, Holmes never said Elementary, Dr Watson!!! So the next time you try that usage off at a dinner party, remember it was never created by Doyle. And with that we plunge into the story of Dr Watson, the general medical practitioner from England starting with his creator Arthur Conan Doyle.
Conan Doyle studied medicine at Edinburgh University in 1876. He hated his studies, and we understand that his worst subject was mathematics (if you recall, his famous villain Moriarty was a mathematician). One of the surgical professors out there called Joseph Bell, whose powers of observation were so acute he boasted he could diagnose patients even before they came into the room, was Doyle’s inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. That was a classic case of making an impression!! Doyle was an outdoorsman, Cricket, fell-walking, rock-climbing, classical theatre, foreign languages, new countries, skiing, riding were all pastimes he pursued.
But the character that mirrored his own life quite a bit was Dr Watson. And interestingly, Watson’s first wife Mary takes her name from Doyle’s own mother to whom he wrote all through his life. Astute readers may ask, did Watson have a second wife? Well, the answer is certainly interesting, but to get there you have to read on…
Craig Hiltons lecture in 1996 provides very many interesting asides on Watson, some of which I will quote here (recounted from Study in Scarlet)
Watson says that the campaign brought him nothing but misfortune and disaster. He was removed from his brigade and attached to the Sixty-sixth Foot (Berkshires),with whom he served in the "fatal battle of Maiwand" on the 27th July 1880, extremely lucky in fact to have escaped with his life. Recovering from his wound in Peshwar, his fortunes even then took a turn for the worse when he contracted enteric fever, and at last he was given his passage home to England to recover for the next nine months on an army half-pension. This was in 1881, and from the time he set foot on Portsmouth jetty, health "irretrievably ruined", Doctor Watson's time with Holmes was about to begin, and their subsequent adventures together are a matter of record to all good Sherlockians.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a doctor himself, of course. Where Watson was described as having graduated in 1878, Doyle did so in 1881. Both chose general practice as their branch of medicine. Watson had a practice which obviously left him time to write (between engagements) and so did Doyle's. Doyle, in his career as a GP, worked with a young assistant named James Watson who was obviously the source of his character's name, and reputedly used a surgical lecturer called Joseph Bell as a source of inspiration for Holmes………..
When John Watson returns from Afghanistan, he is but naturally, “as thin as a lath (something like our wooden reaper plank) and as brown as a nut." He is usually described as strongly built, of a stature either average or slightly above average, with a thick, strong neck and a small moustache. Watson used to be an athlete, and that he once played rugby for Blackheath, but then the wounds and rigors of war have since caught up. Nevertheless as we will see soon, even though he spent hours tending to the sick and writing his tales from his association with Holmes, he still found time for a lot of activity with the fairer sex, and I am sure they were suitably entranced by his tales…
But Holmes and Watson shared an interesting friendship and Holmes puts his respect for Watson into very nice words. "It may be that you are not yourself luminous," Holmes tells Watson in Hound of Baskervilles, "but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it."
Let us get back to the character of Watson. In 1888, he married Mary Morston and left the 221b Baker St digs. Occasionally he helped Holmes solve some cases, and in 1891, Holmes was done away with. Mary died soon thereafter and Watson got depressed. But Holmes reappeared in 1894 and by 1895, they were together again. They labored on till 1902 and Watson decided to get married again, to Violet Hunter. Holmes retired in 1903 and nothing is heard of these characters since then…Conan Doyle had his own problems, with his wife and son who died in 1906 and his lady love Jean Leckie. In 1906 both his first wife & son died and Doyle was shattered and he took to Christian spiritualism.
Dr. John H. Watson was born on July 7th according to some accounts. By a strange coincidence, Conan Doyle died on the same at the age of 71. India featured off and on in Conan Doyle stories as accounts from the extended arm of the British empire, like stolen treasure, sepoy mutiny and so on, but one interesting medical connection is the Indian skeleton (It was later determined to be of a lady from Andaman) provided to the Royal college of surgeons at Edinburg in 1879. Conan Doyle obviously saw it during his studies and this led to his bringing in the Andaman murderer Tonga in the sign of four. Doyle however never visited India in his lifetime.
Dr Watson, though you may not have noticed, figured in our day to day life, until last year, because some bright guy in Microsoft named the debugger in the Windows operating systems as Dr Watson (some say however that it was after a pub called Dad Watsons in Freemont Ave). It is not available after Vista. Dr Watson picks up the clues from your PC and provides it to the various Sherlock’s at Microsoft’s back office (but not 221B in Baker St) for analysis & solutions. Today it is replaced by the mundane ‘problems and solutions’in Windows 7…
Alas…..Dr Watson is finally well and truly dead.