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 & 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


Anamika said…
Good one!! I am a great fan of Holmes. The creator of the most famous detective in the world, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was a practicing opthalmologist. He had a consulting room at 2 Devonshire Place, near Harley Street. It was there, waiting for the patients who never came, Holmes was created. The world owes a lot to those ophthalmic patients who never went to consult Dr. Doyle.

Hope you are all safe from the fury of Irene.

Remembering "Irene Adler" too.

Good readings.
Maddy said…
thanks anamika..
you are so right.. i am now studying the real life detective swings of teh author..

irene went by lots of wind and rain. mercifully no other problems..irene adler - well, if only holmes fell for her..or for holmes fanatics good he did not??
Maddy said…
thanks pns..
glad you liked it
Bernard said…
Sir A. Conan Doyle is remembered for his Naval Life Jacket also! besides his many Historical Novels and war histories.
Thanks Maddy.
sumal said…
Firstly , please accept my heartiest congratulations on writing an excellent article on The Master.You may find this link interesting. we are the Sherlock Holmes Society of India and we discuss Sherlock Holmes from an Indian perspective. Please visit us and I am linking this page to a discussion on the association, if you permit.
See you!
Maddy said…
Thanks Sumal
I will check the society out..

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