- This article is for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's character. For other versions of the character see Versions of John Watson.
Background and description
In the debut Holmes story A Study in Scarlet, Watson, as the narrator, describes meeting Holmes, their subsequent sharing of rooms at 221B Baker Street, his attempts to discover the profession of his taciturn companion, Holmes's eventual taking of Watson into his confidence, and the events surrounding their first case together. Watson describes Holmes and his methods in too romantic and sentimental a manner for Holmes' taste. In time, they become close friends. In The Sign of Four, John Watson met Mary Morstan, who became his wife. Mary seemed somewhat less sure of her husband, however, absentmindedly calling him "James" in the short story "The Man with the Twisted Lip". This may be a simple typographical error, though some have speculated that it is a wifely reference to Watson's unknown middle name, which could have been "Hamish" (Scottish for "James") Dorothy Sayers, creator of the detective Lord Peter Wimsey, also wrote several essays on Holmesian speculation, later published this theory in Unpopular Opinions. Watson is a physician of some experience (as was Conan Doyle). Watson had served in the British Army medical corps in Afghanistan, but was discharged following an injury Watson gives two separate locations for the Jezail bullet wound he received while serving in the British Army. In A Study in Scarlet he states "I was struck on the shoulder by a Jezail bullet, which shattered the bone and grazed the subclavian artery." However in The Sign of the Four, Watson informs us "... [I] sat nursing my wounded leg. I had had a Jezail bullet through it some time before, and though it did not prevent me from walking it ached wearily at every change of the weather". "The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor" contains the only other reference to the injury. Here Watson is a little ambiguous; he tells us "the Jezail bullet which I had brought back in one of my limbs as a relic of my Afghan campaign throbbed with dull persistence." received in the line of duty during the Battle of Maiwand. Watson was almost killed in the long and arduous retreat from the battle, but was saved by his orderly, Murray. He was also struck with fever and was invalided out of the Army with a half pay officer pension of 11 shillings and 6 pence a month. When Watson first returns from Afghanistan, he is "as thin as a lath and as brown as a nut." His more normal appearance is hinted at in "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton": "... a middle-sized, strongly built man--square jaw, thick neck, moustache ...". In The Hound of the Baskervilles he notes that he is "reckoned fleet of foot". By 1914 (in the story "His Last Bow"), he is described as "thickset". He is evidently not ill-favored, as Holmes several times jokes about Watson's success with women. Not very much is written about his family-his deceased father had the same initials as his son and was prosperous enough to own a 50 guineas watch; he had a elder brother also deceased whom Holmes after studying the heirloom watch deduces that although he was relatively prosperous he was also careless and was addicted to strong drink; pawned his heirloom watch four times (although he redeemed the pledges) and the reminder of his brother's life is a very painful subject for John Watson personally. By the time Watson comes back from India, he admits to having no living kin in England.
Watson is not a stupid man (he is, after all, a medical doctor, and one whose talents Holmes holds in the highest esteem), but he does not have Holmes' insight. He serves as a foil to Holmes: the ordinary man against the brilliant, emotionally-detached analytical machine that Holmes can sometimes be. With the two, Conan Doyle created a clever literary pairing: two vivid characters, different in their function and yet each useful for his purposes. Watson is well aware of both the limits of his abilities and Holmes' reliance on him: "[Holmes] was a man of habits... and I had become one of them... a comrade... upon whose nerve he could place some reliance... a whetstone for his mind. I stimulated him... If I irritated him by a certain methodical slowness in my mentality, that irritation served only to make his own flame-like intuitions and impressions flash up the more vividly and swiftly. Such was my humble role in our alliance."
Conan Doyle portrays Watson as a capable and brave individual, whom Holmes does not hesitate to call upon for both moral and physical assistance: "Quickly Watson, get your service revolver!". Watson occasionally attempts to solve crimes on his own, using Holmes's methods. For example, in The Hound of the Baskervilles, Watson efficiently clears up several of the many mysteries confronting the pair, and Holmes praises him warmly for his zeal and intelligence. However, because he is not endowed with Holmes's ability to focus on the essential details of the case, he meets with limited success in other cases, as Holmes remarks "Quite so... you see, but you do not observe." However, as a military man, Watson is the better strategist, besting his friend at chess, who prefers to observe. In the story "The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist", Watson's attempts to help Holmes with an investigation prove unsuccessful because of his unimaginative approach, e.g. asking a London estate agent who lives in a particular country residence (according to Holmes, what he should have done was "gone to the nearest public house" and listened to the gossip). Watson is too guileless to be a proper detective; as Holmes observes in The Valley of Fear, he has a definite strain of "pawky humour", but he is naturally open and straightforward, while Holmes can be secretive and devious.
Though initially their relationship was little more than vaguely acquainted roommates, the two became the very best of friends, almost like brothers. By the time they shared "The Adventure of the Three Garridebs", Holmes had such an attachment to his friend that he nearly panicked at the thought that Watson had been shot. Watson wrote: "It was worth a wound it was worth many wounds to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation." Holmes returns to himself only when he is assured that Watson has been merely scratched by the bullet, adding to the perpetrator that "...if you had killed Watson, you would not have got out of this room alive." Though he never masters Holmes's deductive methods, Watson is acute enough to follow his friend's reasoning after the fact. In "The Adventure of the Norwood Builder", Holmes notes that John Hector McFarlane is "a bachelor, a solicitor, a Freemason, and an asthmatic". Watson comments, in his narratorial role: "Familiar as I was with my friend's methods, it was not difficult for me to follow his deductions, and to observe the untidiness of attire, the sheaf of legal papers, the watch-charm, and the breathing which had prompted them." Similar episodes occur in "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot", "The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist", and "The Adventure of the Resident Patient". Watson is something of a ladies' man (boasting in The Sign of Four of "an experience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents") and fans of the Conan Doyle stories have long speculated as to just how many times he was married.
Watson as archetype of the sidekick
In Conan Doyle's early rough plot outlines, Sherlock Holmes' sidekick was named "Ormond Sacker" before Conan Doyle finally settled on "John Watson". In turn, the introduction of Dr Watson in the Holmes novels proved a precursor to other, similar characters. Many of the great fictional detectives have their Watson: Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, for example, is accompanied by Captain Arthur Hastings. In the words of William L. De Andrea, "Watson also serves the important function of catalyst for Holmes's mental processes. [...] From the writer's point of view, Conan Doyle knew the importance of having someone to whom the detective can make enigmatic remarks, a consciousness that's privy to facts in the case without being in on the conclusions drawn from them until the proper time. Any character who performs these functions in a mystery story has come to be known as a 'Watson'." In 1929, English crime writer and critic Ronald Knox stated as one of his rules for fledgling writers of detective fiction as that the stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader."
Misconception of Watson as being a fool
In a number of film adaptations, in particular those featuring the comic skills of the actor Nigel Bruce, the character of Watson became more of a caricature. Far from being the able assistant as presented by Conan Doyle, Watson was portrayed as an incompetent fool. Modern treatments have returned to the roots of Conan Doyle stories and have portrayed a more sympathetic and competent Watson. The most famous example of this restored image of Watson is the depiction played by David Burke and later Edward Hardwicke in the 1980s television series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, starring Jeremy Brett in the title role. At the end of the episode "The Empty House", Watson even speaks the lines (given to Holmes in the story) about the criminal's motives, and receives Holmes' warm praise for his acumen. Another well-liked depiction was by actor André Morell in the 1959 film version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Other depictions include Donald Houston, who played Watson to John Neville's Holmes in A Study in Terror (1965); a rather belligerent, acerbic Watson portrayed by Colin Blakely in Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), in which Holmes was played by Robert Stephens; and James Mason's portrayal in Murder by Decree (1978), with Christopher Plummer as Holmes. Ian Hart portrayed a young, capable and fit Watson twice for BBC television once opposite Richard Roxburgh as Holmes (in an adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles) and for a second time opposite Rupert Everett as the Great Detective in the new story Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking. Stephen King, the American horror novelist, wrote a short story called The Doctor's Case in the collection Nightmares & Dreamscapes, where Watson actually solves the case instead of an impressed Holmes. Holmes is also in "Hound of the Baskervilles" In the 1988 parody film Without a Clue the roles of a bumbling Watson and an extremely competent Holmes are reversed, in the film Holmes is an invention of Watson played by an alcoholic actor to allow Watson to work on solving cases behind the scenes.
Microsoft Corporation named the debugger in Microsoft Windows "Dr Watson". In the television series House, the character of Dr James Wilson is meant to be a direct reference to Watson, (with House himself being a direct reference to Holmes). In addition to the similarity of their names, Wilson serves in the show as House's only real friend and confidante, and occasionally assists him in solving particularly difficult cases (it should also be mentioned that in one episode House claims to live in 221B Baker Street). Also, in keeping with Watson's role as a ladies' man, Wilson has been married several times and had multiple affairs.
Various (extra-canonical) sources give Watson's birth date as 7 August, 1852 and his full name as Dr John Hamish Watson. According to Nicholas Meyer's revisionist novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, he died in 1939.