Conan Doyle, Holmes and Watson….

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)

John Hamish Watson (Hamish means James in Scottish) was born in England (on July 7th 1852, according to some accounts) and after the death of his mother, he and his brother Henry Jr were taken by their father to spend some of their boyhood in the Australian goldfields. Returning to England, John was educated at a good school, thence proceeding to the University of London Medical School in about 1872 to pursue a medical degree. He was a staff surgeon at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London. In 1878 he was given his degree, and from here he went to Netley to take the course for surgeons in the Army. Having completed this, he was attached to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers as assistant surgeon, but on travelling to India to join them he learned that with the outbreak of the second Afghan War his corps had advanced far into enemy territory. He succeeded in regaining them in Kandahar, where he set about his duties.

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………..

The Battle of Maiwand in 1880 was one of the principal battles of the Second Anglo-Afghan War. Under the leadership of Malalai Anaa, the legendary woman of Afghanistan, the Afghan followers of Ayub Khan defeated the British Army in one of the rare nineteenth-century victories of an Asian force over a Western power. Very few English soldiers and officers survived that war, so that by itself is interesting (Kipling wrote a Poem – ‘The day’ about the event). Bobbie the dog also survived though wounded like Watson and got an Afghan Medal from Queen Victoria. Dr Watson was shot during that event, as it appears and Jezail bullet injuries gave him much discomfort. The jezzail is a handmade Afghan musket with a long barrel, smooth bored or rifled, weighing 12-14 lbs, which fired handmade bullets, iron nails or pebbles…ugh!

Dr Watson gives two separate locations for Jezail bullet wounds he received while serving in the British Army but they were a nuisance, and as he says "the Jezail bullet which I had brought back in one of my limbs as a relic of my Afghan campaign throbbed with dull persistence." Watson had been in danger of being captured by the enemy after the battle (doubtful, he would have been massacred on the spot), but was saved by his orderly, Murray, who threw the doctor on a pack-horse and thus helped to ensure his escape from the field. According to some researchers, Watson's character may have been based upon the 66th regiment's Medical Officer, Surgeon Major A F Preston, who also was wounded in the battle.

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 and son died and Doyle was shattered and he took to Christian spiritualism.

But then in 1907 Doyle got involved with the case of an Indian Parsi doctor George Edalji who was falsely convicted for the Great Wylrey outrages. Doyle took on the Holmes mantle, solved the case with classic Holmes panache and helped clear Edalji’s name (I will write about this interesting story later). In 1907 the court of appeals were created in Britain to correct miscarriage of justice.

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.

So how about Watson’s wives that we mentioned before? Did he have just two as we said before? As he himself said, he had an experience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents. Well, it appears he had six wives, so the Afghan sojourn did not quite weaken him that much. To read about that story, click on “Watson’s wives” under references below.

Watson the good Doctor – Lecture by Craig Hilton
A little-known aspect of Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930): the call of India and a debt to Walter Scott (1771-1832).Gardner DL, Macnicol MF, Endicott P, Rayner DR, Geissler P.
Watsons wives

Bachelor of Arts, Madras University 1870

BA as it was called was quite popular in the early parts of the century, and then it sort of fell by the wayside with the clamor for the 1st group, engineering, CA, medicine and management and much later Computer science, bio chemistry and so on. BA has now lost all its allure; not very many go for History and languages these days and most find it dreary and not something that would provide you a steady job or income. But well, the colleges are full and the classes go on, I believe, filling the hours and days till finally the student takes the exam and gets notified via a newspaper or something that he is a BA graduate. There is no fanfare, no great convocation ceremony like you see in other countries. The BA graduate joins as one of the teeming millions, not remembering an iota of the history or whatever he or she learnt, coz it was of no interest to the individual in the first place.

Today virtually any book of significance you can think of is translated into Malayalam. The latest Paulo Coelho or the Orhan Pamuk book can be found in the Malayalam book shops of Calicut. Everybody in Kerala reads Malayalam, can write in Malayalam and Kerala boasts 100% literacy though that is valid for Malayalam as such and not necessarily English, which by the way is also perfectly OK. But can you imagine a time when a BA 2nd language Malayalam question paper had questions about the Panchatantra, the only four part Malayalam text book available for students? Can you imagine a time when it was taught by Englishmen? These days you shudder when Udit Narayan mispronounces a string of words in a song, so how would it be when a Englishman taught you the basic of the very language?

Most of you believe that the first Malayalam grammar works were by Gundert, but they were actually not. It started with a Portuguese, Dutch Malayalam dictionary in 1746, followed by a Grammar book by Surgeon Drummond in 1749. In 1839, another grammar book was written by F spring. Joseph Peet followed in 1841, and Arbuthnot followed in 1864. But all these books were in English (about Malayalam grammar) and it was only in 1868 that Gundert’s book in Malayalam was published (originally published in part in 1851). Then followed works by native speakers, like Kovunni Nedungadi, Tatchu Muttattu, Govinda Pillai and so on.. The time was thus the 1860’s. Readers must note that there were a large number of works written by native speakers before all this, from the 15th century, but I am talking about instructional books.

The Madras University was a working institution by 1840. In fact by 1855 there was even a plan to build a monster university costing over a million Pound sterling and bigger than any building in the world, but was thrown out by the supreme government as a wasteful idea. While they had a number of other subjects, the second language choice was somewhat circumspect( Hindustani, Tamil,Telugu, Malayalam). But let us now get to the details of Malayalam as offered Passages from the Panchatantra formed the syllabus for the exams. Some years later, it was slightly better, the exam covered passages from Gundert’s Keralolpatti. And thus the Parasurama cult got even more ingrained into the Malayali psyche. But can you believe that for 10 or 20 years the main stalwarts behind the Malayalam department of the Madras University comprised three Englishmen and much later two Malayalis?

To get to all this you have to go to 1858, in Madras. It was in 1858 when the EIC assets were transferred to her majesty’s British government and it was the time Guindy Engineering College was affiliated to the Madras University. The Sepoy mutiny was just about to happen. The Madras times was being published and the Poligar revolt was underway in Madras presidency.

So we are starting to see that studying in college was somewhat different a century back. Let me tell you how one went about getting a BA in the late 19th century, at for example Madras university. Now many of you may wonder why I am talking about such a strange subject. Some of you may have heard about these things from your grand or great grand parent, if they had sat through one of those examinations. But well, I learnt about all this by chance, thanks to one reader who sought help in locating and getting details on one E Marsden from the annals of history. I could not really help her too much, but I found that this individual was in Travancore and Madras, studied Malayalam, and obtained a BA from Madras University. He then went on to write a number of Malayalam text books that was in the forthcoming syllabi and made a good amount of money from selling the books. I found out also that he went back and settled in a home in England.

It so happened that I found his name as a BA graduate of 1870 passing his exams with a 2nd class. There was not a single first class graduate. That sort of got me interested. What I also found interesting was the fact that he left in posterity an address that covered three places I knew. Pembroke, Bath and Cheltenham, all places I had been to. Marsden, E., Pembroke House, Bath Road, Cheltenham - that was his address. But no further information was available on this person, other than the fact that his Malayalam text books were quite slanted in favor of the colonial government. So I left him in peace, undisturbed after a tough time in South India, in his place of eternal rest in a grave in Cheltenham UK. But I have to thank reader Sarah Stephen for triggering all this. Anyway, Marsden or his text books is not the topic, but the Malayalam course for a BA degree that one got from Madras University and the exams in Malayalam as second language in that effort.

While Gundert may have made the dictionary and moved on, the person who taught much of basic Malayalam and instilled a practice of it at a graduate and later post graduate level was a person named Liston Garthwaite. For some twenty years, he handle dteh Malayalam department in Madras University, and before him (i.e. before 1860 or so) it was Arbuthnot, though I doubt anybody took an exam in Malayalam. Garthwaite’s bio goes thus…

GARTHWAITE, LISTON, B.A. (London), late Education Department, Madras. Served from 8th April, 1857, as head master of the Zillali school, Cuddalore, of the provincial school, Calicut, and of the normal school, Cannanore, and as deputy inspector of schools; also acted as Malayan translator, and Canarese translator to government from Sept., 1869, served as inspector of schools; compiled Canarese and Malayan Arzis for the secretary of state, and also various text-books; fellow of Madras University, March, 1884; 2nd class, education department, May, 1884 ; on special duty at Madras in connection with preparation of a scheme for development of technical and scientific education, in 1884-85, and again in 1885-86; retired, Dec, 1888.

Another notable scholar who took an interest in Malayalam at that time was Mr. FW Ellis, but one of the first to get through the BA courses and become an instructor in his mother tongue was native speaker Achyutha Panickar followed by TC Poonen.

So we see that by now the basics for an institutional study of the language has been set into place. Some kind of instructors and books are available though sketchy at best. The various instructors we see from 1870-1880 are W. Joyes, Esq. L. Garthwaite & Achyuta Panikkar, JR Thomas, TC Poonen. Panikkar himself had got his BA in 1867 from Madras.

Let us look at the years 1858/1859.The single feeder schools from Malabar was the Provincial school Calicut where you a person with a good moral character sat to write the entrance exam as a 16 years old, after paying five rupees. One of the possible subjects was Malayalam and the exam was on by two books Panchatantra Part 1 and Malayalam selections ( Kottayam 1851). All you had to do was translate…Easy sentences in the two languages in which the candidate is examined shall be given for translation the one into another………….

If you entered for BA, you had subjects as follows Panchatantra Parts II-V and Bharatam. You completed three years of studies and sat for exams paying twenty five rupees.

Candidates shall be examined in each of the languages selected by them both in prose and poetry, the subject being named by the Senate two years previous to the Examination from any approved classical or standard works

Let us jump a few years and go to 1863. We find the first Prince from Travancore in the faculty, and Madhav Rao the Dewan of Travancore also listed. As I read, I saw that Hindustani exams were taught and taken in Arabic script!!

By 1864, the syllabus had expanded somewhat and Garthwaite was appointed as the Malayalam examiner. The matriculation syllabus read thus Panchatantra Part 1, Anthology 71 pages, omitting pages 58-67, Malayalam sketches of Europe & England.

For the first BA exam, they covered Keralolpatti & Nalacharita

And for the BA exam, it was

Acyutha Panikkar, Karunakara Menon, TC Poonen, etc graduated under Garthwaite’s instructions.

But it was I believe in 1865 that the first question papers and syllabus came about under Garthwaite. The question papers were partly in English and in Malayalam showing the relatively low grasp of the language, but still an admirable attempt at formalizing studies. Take a look at the question paper.

Or try this

By 1866, the syllabus increased

By this time a number of people from Malabar had started appearing and passing exams. The exams had extensive inclusions from Keralolpatti and Kerala Pazhama as well as from the Mahabharata and Ramayana and curiously, some verbose court rulings to translate.

Late into the 1870’s TC Poonen (CMS Kottayam) and V Acyutha Panikkar and one JR Thomas became examiners taking over from Garthwaite. I saw that Sarvottama Rao studied there & passed in 1867, and it was possibly his son who was my head master in Ganapati School in the late 1960’s? By 1976, Garthwaite was back. Around 1877 there was a maharaja of Cochin scholarship. In 1877 the Malayalam examiner was an RA Sheppard. And V Achyutha Panikkar was joined by R Diez and U Achyutan Nayar, and the syllabus further expanded. I could never find further details of Acyutha Panikkar, Achuyutan Nair etc, but TC Poonen is well remembered in Kottayam circles.

So that wa show it was for a person to take a Malayalam exam in the 19th century. Today you see school students cramming up what they did for a BA in those days, but remember, the problem at that time was to set a threshold and pass it. For people who had no concept of such an education system, it must have been a great challenge. Looking at them today is kind of silly, but now you know at least why Keralolpatti was given such a great significance by the previous generation and why it was and is much talked about.

There were other universities teaching Malayalam and there were schools teaching Malayalam, but this was just a peek into the Madras University’s handling of Malayalam as a subject for attaining a Bachelor of Arts. Spare a thought for people like Garthwaite and Sheppard, they toiled hard in a world alien to them, with the greatest of challenges, teaching Malayalam to a Malayali. Now I can imagine how it would have been, when the Indian teachers came to USA to teach English or Math or whatever… a few years back.

A progressive grammar of the Malayalam language – L Joannes Frohnmeyer
Madras university calendars 1858-1880