Doctor Watson

Doctor Watson
Dr. John H. Watson
Sherlock Holmes character
Paget holmes.png
Dr. Watson (left) and Sherlock Holmes, by Sidney Paget.
First appearance A Study in Scarlet
Last appearance "His Last Bow"
Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Gender Male
Occupation Physician
Title Doctor
Spouse(s) Mary Morstan (wife)
Nationality English

John H. Watson, M.D. (born 7 July 1852[1]), known as Dr. Watson, is a character in the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Watson is Sherlock Holmes's friend, assistant and sometime flatmate, and is the first person narrator[2] of all but four stories in the Sherlock Holmes canon.


Background and description


Doctor Watson's first name is mentioned on only three occasions. Part one of the very first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, is subtitled 'Being a reprint from the Reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D., Late of the Army Medical Department'.[3] In 'The Problem of Thor Bridge', Watson says that his dispatch box is labeled 'John H. Watson, M.D'.[4] Watson's wife calls him 'James' in The Man with the Twisted Lip; according to Dorothy L. Sayers, she is referring to his middle name Hamish (which means James in Scots).[5] In every other instance, he is called either Doctor or Watson, or both together, and his first name is never used again.

Meeting Holmes

In the debut Holmes story A Study in Scarlet, Watson, as the narrator, tells us that he had received his medical degree from the University of London in 1878, and had subsequently gone on to train as an Army surgeon. He then joined British forces in India, saw service in Afghanistan, was wounded at the Battle of Maiwand (27 July 1880), and after months of recovery, was sent back to England on the troopship HMS Orontes.[6] In England the action of the story begins, presumably in late 1880 or early 1881. He 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 acceptance of Watson, and the events surrounding their first case together. Watson describes Holmes and his methods in detail, but in too romantic and sentimental a manner for Holmes's taste. In time, they become close friends. In The Sign of the Four, John Watson meets Mary Morstan, who becomes his wife. In "The Adventure of the Empty House", the first story after Holmes's return (after he had been thought dead for three years), Watson states that "Holmes had while away learned of my own sad bereavement and his sympathy was shown through his manner rather than in his words." This indicates that Watson has lost someone significant to death, almost certainly his wife; that fact is confirmed when he moves back to Baker Street to share lodgings with Holmes, as he had done as a bachelor. Conan Doyle made mention of a second wife in "The Adventure of the Illustrious Client" and "The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier", but this wife was never named, described, or explained.

Dr. Watson is a physician of some experience (as was Conan Doyle). He had served as an Assistant Surgeon of the Army Medical Department (attached to the Berkshires) in Afghanistan, but he was discharged following an injury received in the line of duty during the Battle of Maiwand. (Watson gives two separate locations for 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." In The Sign of the Four,[7] Watson informs us that he "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, "the Jezail bullet which I had brought back in one of my limbs as a relic of my Afghan campaign throbbed with dull persistence." Many scholars suggest that Watson was wounded twice, with the shoulder wound more immediately threatening his life and the wound in his leg not so serious at the time but later becoming a source of persistent discomfort.) Watson had been in danger of being captured by the enemy after the battle, 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. 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 of Maiwand.[8] It is possible that Conan Doyle was inspired by the survival of another physician in Afghanistan, Dr. William Brydon, although that event occurred in 1842 during the First Anglo-Afghan War.[citation needed]

Watson often uses his service revolver in the cases. He is a crack shot, apparently a better marksman than Holmes. Oddly, in the most notable use of Watson's service revolver, the gun is never discharged; instead, in "The Problem of Thor Bridge", Holmes uses the revolver to test his theory of how the homicide occurred and why there is a curious, unexplained gash in the stonework of the bridge.

Physical appearance

When John Watson first returns from Afghanistan, he is "as thin as a lath 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, as it is mentioned in "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire" that he once played rugby for Blackheath, but he fears his physical condition has declined since that point.


Watson reading bad news to Holmes in "The Five Orange Pips".

Watson is described as a crack shot and an excellent doctor and surgeon. Intelligent, if lacking in Holmes's insight, he serves as a perfect foil for Holmes: the ordinary man against the brilliant, emotionally-detached analytical machine. Conan Doyle paired two 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's 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. – "The Adventure of the Creeping Man"

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 sometimes 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 almost-superhuman ability to focus on the essential details of the case and Holmes's extraordinary range of recondite, specialised knowledge, Watson meets with limited success in other cases. Holmes summed up the problem that Watson confronted in one memorable rebuke from "A Scandal in Bohemia": "Quite so... you see, but you do not observe." In "The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist," Watson's attempts to assist Holmes's investigation prove unsuccessful because of his unimaginative approach, for example, 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. And yet, as Holmes acknowledges, Watson has unexpected depths about him; for example, he has a definite strain of "pawky humour", as Holmes observes in The Valley of Fear. On the whole, however, Watson is naturally open and straightforward, while Holmes can be secretive and devious.

Though initially their relationship was little more than one between casual acquaintances sharing a set of rooms, Holmes and Watson ultimately become the best of friends, almost like brothers. By the time they shared "The Adventure of the Three Garridebs", Holmes was so attached to his friend that he nearly lost his composure at the thought that Watson had been fatally 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 recovers his balance only when he is sure that Watson's wound is slight, but a trace of his alarm and worry for Watson is clear in his menacing reproof to the criminal who shot the doctor: "If you had killed Watson, you would not have got out of this room alive."

Though Watson never masters Holmes's deductive methods, he can be astute 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 as narrator: "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." In "The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter", we find a rare instance in which Watson rather than Holmes correctly deduces the motives for the torture of the crime victim.

In The Hound of the Baskervilles[9] Watson shows that he has picked up some of Holmes's skills at dealing with people from whom information is desired—though, as a skilled doctor with a first-rate bedside manner, Watson naturally would have such skills. When Watson sees that his questions to Dr. Mortimer are arousing too much curiosity, he manipulates the conversation so that Mortimer soon forgets what they were discussing. (As he observes to the reader, "I have not lived for years with Sherlock Holmes for nothing.") Though he is on the wrong scent when seeking information from Mr. Frankland, he succeeds in egging on the contrary old man by using Holmes's trick of feigning lack of interest. And he questions Laura Lyons much as Holmes might have done.

Watson was a fully competent doctor, and his knowledge proved useful to Holmes on many occasions. In "The Adventure of Silver Blaze," for example, his identification of a certain type of surgical knife confirms Holmes's suspicions and helps him solve a crucial puzzle in the larger mystery. In "The Boscombe Valley Mystery," Watson's notes about the injury the murder victim had sustained— a blow to the left side of the head from the back— prompted Holmes to realise that their killer was left-handed, which allowed him to narrow the list of suspects. In "The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter," Watson's medical skill saves the life of the client Mr. Melas, who was nearly killed by the story's villains with gas poisoning. Holmes notes his respect for Watson's professional skill in "The Adventure of the Dying Detective" when he explains that he incorporated into his ruse of being deathly ill a claim that his illness was highly contagious, since Holmes knew that Dr. Watson never would have been deceived upon examining him closely and discovering that an ostensibly dying man had neither a high fever nor an abnormal pulse.

Watson is a ladies' man (reporting in The Sign of Four of his "experience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents") and there are ample, though occasionally inconsistent, clues in the stories giving rise to speculation as to whether he was married twice or even thrice.

Watson as Holmes's biographer

At the end of the first published Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, Watson is so impressed by Holmes's elegant handling of the case and so incensed by Scotland Yard's claiming full credit for its solution that he exclaims: "Your merits should be publicly recognised. You should publish an account of the case. If you won't, I will for you." Holmes suavely responds: "You may do what you like, Doctor." Hence Watson did write the story, presented as "a reprint from the reminiscences of John H. Watson".

In the first chapter of the second story that Watson records, The Sign of Four, Holmes comments on Watson's first effort as a biographer—but with a distinct lack of enthusiasm: "I glanced over it. Honestly, I cannot congratulate you upon it. Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism… The only point in the case which deserved mention was the curious analytical reasoning from effects to causes, by which I succeeded in unravelling it."

Watson in his narrative admits, "I was annoyed at this criticism of a work which had been specially designed to please him. I confess, too, that I was irritated by the egotism which seemed to demand that every line of my pamphlet should be devoted to his own special doings. More than once during the years that I had lived with him in Baker Street I had observed that a small vanity underlay my companion's quiet and didactic manner."

As these lines suggest, in his later stories Watson stopped trying to please Holmes and felt free to write about his friend with astonishing frankness, sometimes commenting on his flaws and his arrogance as well as describing his successes. Holmes apparently did not care, and also remained unimpressed by Watson's "sketches" of his cases. In "The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge," the detective acidly refers to "those narratives with which you have afflicted a long-suffering public". In "The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier," one of only two stories supposedly written by Holmes himself, the detective remarks about Watson: "I have often had occasion to point out to him how superficial are his accounts and to accuse him of pandering to popular taste instead of confining himself rigidly to facts and figures." Yet, when Holmes confronts the need to be his own chronicler, he realises just how difficult it is to write a narrative that will hold the reader's attention, and then he confesses that Watson would have been the better choice to write the story. In any case, Holmes regularly referred to Watson as my "faithful friend and biographer," and at least once exclaims, "I am lost without my Boswell."

Outside the fiction, Holmes's deprecating remarks on Watson's narratives resonate with Conan Doyle’s self-ironic view of his own authorship. Although for decades he continued to write new Holmes stories to satisfy an indulgent public, he saw himself "pandering to popular taste", because the Holmes character “may perhaps have stood a little in the way of the recognition of my more serious literary work” (preface to The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes). Ultimately, Conan Doyle felt frustration that he would be remembered most likely for Holmes and Watson rather than for his historical novels of chivalry, his defence of British conduct in the Boer War and the First World War (for which he was knighted), and his many writings on spiritualism.

In "The Adventure of the Abbey Grange," Holmes concedes to Watson that "you have some power of selection, which atones for much which I deplore in your narratives." Otherwise he maintained his criticism: "Your fatal habit of looking at everything from the point of view of a story instead of as a scientific exercise has ruined what might have been an instructive and even classical series of demonstrations. You slur over work of the utmost finesse and delicacy, in order to dwell upon sensational details which may excite, but cannot possibly instruct, the reader."

Holmes, Watson and Captain Croker in The Adventure of the Abbey Grange.

Watson, on the other hand, claimed that "in choosing a few typical cases which illustrate the remarkable mental qualities of my friend, Sherlock Holmes, I have endeavoured, as far as possible, to select those which presented the minimum of sensationalism, while offering a fair field for his talents." He found, though, that it was "unfortunately impossible entirely to separate the sensational from the criminal" ("The Adventure of the Cardboard Box").

Holmes sometimes accuses Watson of exaggerating his abilities. In "Silver Blaze", Holmes confesses: "I made a blunder, my dear Watson—which is, I am afraid, a more common occurrence than anyone would think who only knew me through your memoirs." When Holmes felt he had bungled something, he could exclaim: "Watson, Watson, if you are an honest man you will record this also and set it against my successes!" (The Hound of the Baskervilles, chapters 5–6.) In his prologue to "The Adventure of the Yellow Face," Watson himself remarked: "In publishing these short sketches [of Holmes’ cases] is only natural that I should dwell rather upon his successes than upon his failures", although he notes that this is also because where Holmes failed often nobody else succeeded.

Sometimes Watson (or rather Conan Doyle) seems determined to stop publishing stories about Holmes. In "The Adventure of the Second Stain", Watson declares that he had intended the previous story (“The Adventure of the Abbey Grange”) "to be the last of those exploits of my friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, which I should ever communicate to the public," but later Watson decided that "this long series of episodes should culminate in the most important international case which he has ever been called upon to handle" ("The Second Stain" being that case). Of course, the "long series of episodes" did not end with this story; there were some twenty stories yet to come.

As stated at the beginning of "The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger," Watson was able to cooperate with Holmes during seventeen of the twenty-three years the detective was in active practice, keeping "notes of his doings". Watson's published accounts are supposed to be based on these notes. In the later stories, written after Holmes's retirement (ca. 1903–04), Watson repeatedly refers to his notes about the various cases: "I have notes of many hundreds of cases to which I have never alluded.” He explained that after Holmes's retirement, the detective showed reluctance "to the continued publication of his experiences. So long as he was in actual professional practice the records of his successes were of some practical value to him, but since he has definitely retired…notoriety has become hateful to him" ("The Adventure of the Second Stain"). But during Holmes's active career, the publicity Watson gave to his cases was apparently good for business, however superficial Watson’s narratives may have seemed to the detective.

After Holmes's retirement, Watson often cites special permission from his friend for the publication of further stories. Yet he also received occasional unsolicited suggestions from Holmes about what stories to tell, as noted at the beginning of "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot". After receiving a telegram from Holmes, Watson promptly "hunt[ed] out the notes which give me the exact details of the case and to lay the narrative before my readers."

Watson refers to and even describes his "notes" in some stories. Watson refers to "the three massive manuscript volumes which contain our work for the year 1894," confessing that "it is very difficult for me, out of such a wealth of material, to select the cases which are most interesting" ("The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez"). In "The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger," Watson speaks of "a long row of year-books which fill a shelf," as well as "the dispatch-cases filled with documents, a perfect quarry for the student not only of crime but of the social and official scandals of the late Victorian era." The published sixty stories are thus only a fraction of the total number of cases handled by Holmes during his career.

Despite the extensive notes referred to, sometimes it is not quite clear where Watson gets his information from. For example, Part 2 of A Study in Scarlet describes the early life of Jefferson Hope, detailing his life in America and the events that finally resulted in him committing the crimes that Holmes has solved in Part 1. Part 1 is clearly Watson's work, describing events he himself witnessed, but it is not clear how he could be the author of Part 2. It gives the impression of being written by an omniscient author. We hear nothing of the extensive interviews with Hope that Watson must have conducted if he were to be the writer of this part of the story as well.

The Valley of Fear is also split into two parts, Part 2 again detailing the earlier life of a protagonist in America. This time Conan Doyle inserted a minimal explanation for how Watson came to possess the relevant information: In the last chapter of Part 1, the person in question hands Watson a "bundle of paper" setting out his story, and he encourages the doctor to "tell it your own way," referring to Watson as "the historian of the bunch." Part 2 is written in novelistic format and with a remarkable amount of detail, suggesting that Watson felt free to greatly elaborate on the facts provided to him. (In particular, it seems unlikely that the original “bundle of paper” would include lengthy, verbatim transcripts of conversations that took place years earlier.)

The candid chronicler

At the beginning of "The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger", Watson makes strong claims about "the discretion and high sense of professional honour" that govern his work as Holmes's biographer, but discretion and professional honour do not block Watson from expressing himself and quoting Holmes with remarkable candor on the characters of their antagonists and their clients.

In "The Red-Headed League," for example, Watson introduces Jabez Wilson: "Our visitor bore every mark of being an average commonplace British tradesman, obese, pompous, and slow"—wearing "a not over-clean black frock-coat." In "A Case of Identity," he refers to the "preposterous hat and the vacuous face" of Mary Sutherland. In "The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter," Cyril Overton is said to be a man "more accustomed to using his muscles than his wits." The latter case ends with Holmes uncovering a deep personal tragedy, and a physician tells him: "I am sure that I can rely upon your discretion and that of your friend." Here, appearances cut one way and realities cut another. Though Watson wrote and published an account of the case, seemingly breaching confidence and violating discretion, Watson's account blurred many of the details that would have allowed later scholars to identify those involved in the case.

Despite Watson's frequent expressions of admiration and friendship for Holmes, the many stresses and strains of living and working with the detective make themselves evident in Watson's occasional asperity. The most controversial of these matters is Watson's candor about Holmes's drug use. Though the use of cocaine was quite legal in Holmes's era, Watson's direct criticism of Holmes's habits has a sting to it, especially in the opening chapter of The Sign of Four. Elsewhere, Watson describes Holmes as brilliant, but also untidy, eccentric, vain, and often arrogant. On the other hand, Holmes, with his passion for exact statement, would recognise Watson's descriptions of himself as accurate, preferring them to a more sanitised presentation of himself.

In "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans," Holmes gives Watson information about his brother Mycroft Holmes that is clearly confidential: "One has to be discreet when one talks of high matters of state." Mycroft, Holmes reveals, serves a vital function as a walking database for the government: "The conclusions of every department are passed to him, and he is the central exchange…his specialism is omniscience." This revelation would make Mycroft an obvious target for Britain's enemies, and his position should be kept strictly secret. Yet, given that the story was not published before 1912 and describes events set in 1895, it is likely that Mycroft had retired or even died before publication, so the bar against revealing his role in British government no longer existed.

Some have criticised Watson's revelation of "The Boscombe Valley Mystery," given that, at the tale's close, Watson reveals the identity of the murderer and adds: "Old Turner lived for seven months after our interview, but he is now dead; and there is every prospect that the son and daughter may come to live happily together in ignorance of the black cloud which rests upon their past." Would they be so happy were they to learn of the appearance of the case report in the Strand Magazine? Again, Watson's care in cloaking dates and locations and identities is the deciding factor.

Sometimes, indeed, Watson talks about the need for discretion. The events related in “The Adventure of the Second Stain” are supposedly very sensitive: "If in telling the story I seem to be somewhat vague in certain details, the public will readily understand that there is an excellent reason for my reticence. It was, then, in a year, and even in a decade, that shall be nameless, that upon one Tuesday morning in autumn we found two visitors of European fame within the walls of our humble room in Baker Street." Later in the same story, however, Watson twice includes substantial quotations from newspaper articles supposedly published during the days when Holmes worked on this case. Again, the failure of scholars to date this case with any kind of agreement, or even to agree on which prime minister is meant by the fictitious Lord Bellinger or which foreign secretary is personated by the Rt. Hon. Trelawney Hope, suggests that Watson has observed discretion.

After identifying the perpetrator, Holmes in some stories decides to let him off the hook instead of exposing him. The most famous examples are "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" and "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot". At the end of "The Adventure of the Abbey Grange," Holmes uses Watson himself as a one-man jury, and Watson's verdict is that the perpetrator should be allowed to walk free. Taken at face value, such stories would seem to be self-defeating, since Watson did after all publish the identity of the perpetrator—yet again Watson's skill in cloaking identities, places, and dates preserves discretion.

In "A Case of Identity," Miss Mary Sutherland hires Holmes to look into the fate of her beloved fiance Hosmer Angel, who disappeared on their wedding day. Holmes determines that "Angel" is a disguised impostor who never loved her back, but he opts not to tell his client, because he is convinced that she would not believe him anyway. Did Watson's decision to publish the whole story suggest that he disagreed with Holmes? Yet again, it is impossible to decide the point, and yet again, Watson's discretion in cloaking the facts of a given case may be his means of sparing the client's feelings.

In "The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger," Watson notes that he has "made a slight change of name and place" when presenting that story. Here he is direct about a method of preserving discretion and confidentiality that other scholars have inferred from the stories, with pseudonyms replacing the "real" names of clients, witnesses, and culprits alike, and altered place-names replacing the real locations.

One final point must be made—that Watson chronicled less than five percent of the cases that Holmes handled during his career. It can be supposed that Watson's choosing to recount a case is a clear indication that there either never was nor was any longer a question of discretion or confidentiality to be observed. This point is established by what may be the most famous short account of a Holmes case, "The Adventure of the Speckled Band", in which Watson reveals why he has chosen to publish the case now: "It is possible that I might have placed them upon record before, but a promise of secrecy was made at the time, from which I have only been freed during the last month by the untimely death of the lady to whom the pledge was given. It is perhaps as well that the facts should now come to light, for I have reasons to know that there are widespread rumours as to the death of Dr. Grimesby Roylott which tend to make the matter even more terrible than the truth."

As archetype of the sidekick

In Conan Doyle's early rough plot outlines, he intended the role of Watson to be filled by two junior detectives, Sandifer and Phillip; he later merged these characters as "Watson". In turn, Conan Doyle's introduction of Dr. Watson into the Holmes novels and stories 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; Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe had Archie Goodwin. J. R. R. Tolkien used the Hobbits in his works in a similar way, using characters such as Bilbo Baggins and Sam Gamgee to filter the intricate and mysterious aspects of his novels through to the audience.

"Watson also serves the important function of catalyst for Holmes's mental processes. [...] From the writer's point of view, 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."


In a number of film adaptations, in particular those featuring the comic skills of the actor Nigel Bruce, Watson became more of a caricature than a character. Far from being the able assistant as presented by Conan Doyle, the Rathbone-Bruce films portrayed Watson as an incompetent bumbler. This was a popular trend during the 1930s and 40s, so as to make films have large elements of drama, suspense and comedy, to attract larger audiences. Modern treatments have returned to the roots of Conan Doyle stories and have portrayed a more sympathetic and competent Watson. The most famous examples of this restored image of Watson are the portrayals of Watson by David Burke and later by Edward Hardwicke in the 1980s television series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes. At the end of the episode "The Empty House," Watson, as played by Hardwicke, even speaks the lines (given to Holmes in the story) about the criminal's motives, and receives Holmes's warm praise for his acumen.

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (right), as appearing in Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Silver Earring video game

Another well-liked depiction was actor André Morell's portrayal of Watson in the 1959 film version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Morell was particularly keen that his version of Watson should be closer to that originally depicted in Conan Doyle's stories, and away from the bumbling stereotype established by Nigel Bruce's interpretation of the role.[10] Other depictions include Robert Duvall opposite Nicol Williamson's Holmes in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1978), 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 (who starts the rumour that they are homosexual lovers so women will not chase after him); 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 a 2002 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 (2004).

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 Holmes.

In the Soviet/Russian Sherlock Holmes film series directed by Igor Maslennikov Dr. Watson was played by Vitaly Solomin. He is portrayed in the book as a brave and intelligent man, but not especially physically strong.

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 (Michael Caine) is an invention of Watson (Ben Kingsley) played by an alcoholic actor; when Watson initially offered suggestions on how to solve a case to some visiting policemen, he was at the time applying for a post in a reclusive medical practice, and so invented the fictional Holmes to avoid attracting attention to himself, continuing the "lie" of Holmes's existence after he failed to get the post. At the same time, the film's Watson becomes increasingly frustrated that his own talents are unrecognised, and unavailingly attempts to win celebrity for himself as "the Crime Doctor."

Likewise, Bob the Tomato in Sheerluck Holmes and the Golden Ruler plays a Watson that is the true brains of the pair (VeggieTales, 2006).

Watson was also portrayed by English-born actor Michael Williams for the BBC Radio adaptation of the complete run of the Holmes canon from November 1989 to July 1998. Williams, together with Clive Merrison, who played Holmes, are the only actors who have portrayed the Conan Doyle characters in all the short stories and novels of the canon. Williams's take on Watson was also close to the one depicted in the Conan Doyle stories. In this series' adaptation of the story "His Last Bow", Watson comments self-deprecatingly on the public's lasting appetite for his tales of "the great detective and his rather slow assistant," to which Holmes replies, "You never did do justice to yourself".

In January 1998, Jim French Productions received the rights from the estate of Dame Jean Conan Doyle to produce new radio stories of Holmes and Watson with Clive Merrison and Andrew Sachs taking on the roles of the Baker Street duo. The first episode of The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes debuted in March of that same year with Sachs carrying on the standard set by Michael Williams, who had died. Sachs portrays Watson as Conan Doyle set him down in the canon; in 2005 when French decided to take on producing Conan Doyle's original stories with John Patrick Lowrie as Holmes, Sachs was well able to give the listeners a true depiction of Watson.

In the 2009 Warner Bros. film Sherlock Holmes directed by Guy Ritchie, Jude Law portrays Watson as brave, intelligent, resolute, a crack shot, and a thorough medical professional, as well as a somewhat competent detective in his own right who is capable of becoming aggressive during a fight, actively helping Holmes seek out clues and making deductions. Apart from being armed with his trademark sidearm, his film incarnation was shown to be also a capable swordsman (he was hinted to have participated in the Afghan War, as noted by Holmes), as he carries with him a sword disguised as a cane wherever he goes. The film portrays Watson as having a gambling problem. William S. Baring-Gould had inferred Watson's gambling problem from a reference in "The Adventure of the Dancing Men" to Holmes locking Watson's chequebook in his desk.[11] Law in interviews reported that he had based his version of Watson on a careful and attentive reading of the original novels and stories. In this film, Holmes often praises and indicates his respect for Watson. Indeed, one reason why Sherlock Holmes, played by Robert Downey, Jr., persists with the case is that he is intent on vindicating Watson's professional competence after a man whom Watson has pronounced dead at his execution by hanging seemingly comes back to life to wreak havoc on London. Law will return in the 2011 sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.

Watson appears on the 2010 direct-to-DVD Asylum film Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, a science fiction reinvention in which he is portrayed by Torchwood actor Gareth David-Lloyd. At the beginning of the film, Watson is seen as an elderly man, portrayed by David Shackleton, during the Blitz in 1940. He tells his nurse the tale of the adventure which he and Holmes vowed never to tell the public. In 1889, he is a home doctor and personal physican and biographer of Sherlock Holmes (Ben Syder), who often teases that Watson is quite a ladies-man and action hero. He helps Holmes battle a criminal genius called Spring-Heeled Jack and his robotic creatures which help him commit his crimes.

In 2010, the BBC began screening the TV series Sherlock, setting the characters of Holmes and Watson in contemporary London. John Watson, played by Martin Freeman, is again portrayed as a British army doctor, but wounded in the recent conflict in Afghanistan.[12] In order to be able to afford to live in London on an army pension, he becomes the flatmate of Sherlock Holmes at 221B Baker Street, and is drawn into a case he is investigating. Here as opposed to publishing his and Sherlock's case he writes up the events on his blog on the instructions of his therapist. His wound is in his left shoulder but he has a limp for the first half of 'A Study in Pink'. His limp is in fact psychosomatic, his therapist believes that it is caused by Post Traumatic Stress, but both Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes demonstrate that in fact Watson's limp disappears in dangerous situations, suggesting he in fact misses the danger of war.

Popular cultural references

Although "Elementary, my dear Watson" is perhaps Holmes's best-known catch phrase, he never uses exactly those words in any of the books written by A. Conan Doyle.[13][14]

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).[15] In addition to the similarity of their names, Wilson serves in the show as House's only real friend and confidant, and occasionally assists him in solving particularly difficult cases. (In one episode, House also claims to live in 221B Baker Street.)

In the TV series Sanctuary, Watson is a member of "The Five" and the actual detective in the Conan Doyle stories.[16] The character of Holmes is created and Watson is made his sidekick at Watson's request to Conan Doyle.[16]

In Batman stories the character of Robin was intended to be the Batman's Watson.[17]

However, in later stories, the character Alfred Pennyworth fills the role better, being the Dark Knight's doctor, friend, and confidant. He also has a British military background, having practised medicine on the battlefield.[18]

Both Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes make a guest appearance in the Batman: The Brave and the Bold episode "Trials of the Demon!"[19]

In the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation, the character Geordi La Forge takes on the role of Dr. Watson in holodeck simulations with his shipmate and friend, Data.[20]

In the fourth season of the American television series Heroes, when Hiro Nakamura gets some mental damage and can only speak through riddles that involve his favourite science fiction or comic book stories, he refers to Dr. Mohinder Suresh as "Dr. Watson".[21]

American author Michael Mallory began a series of stories in the mid-1990s featuring Watson's mysterious second wife, whom he called Amelia Watson.[22] In Sherlock Holmes's War of the Worlds, Watson's second wife is Violet Hunter, from "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches".


  1. ^ Birthday of Sherlock Holmes' sidekick, Dr. Watson – This Day in History – 7 July 1852. Retrieved on 23 August 2011.
  2. ^ The Hound of the Baskervilles/Chapter 10 Wikisource. Retrieved on 23 August 2011.
  3. ^ Arthur Conan Doyle, "A Study in Scarlet", subtitle.
  4. ^ The Problem of Thor Bridge Wikisource. Retrieved on 23 August 2011.
  5. ^ Dorothy L. Sayers, "Dr. Watson's Christian Name," in Unpopular Opinions (London: Victor Gollancz, 1946), 148–151.
  6. ^ A Study in Scarlet/Part 1/Chapter 1 Wikisource. Retrieved on 23 August 2011.
  7. ^ The Project Gutenberg E-text of The Sign of the Four, by Arthur Conan Doyle. Retrieved on 23 August 2011.
  8. ^ The Wardrobe – The Rifles (Berkshire and Wiltshire) Museum[dead link]
  9. ^ Literary Qualities of The Hound of the Baskervilles | Novel Summaries Analysis. (26 January 2009). Retrieved on 23 August 2011.
  10. ^ Kinsey, Wayne (2002). Hammer Films—The Bray Studios Years. Richmond: Reynolds & Hearn Ltd. p. 133. ISBN 1-903111-11-0. 
  11. ^ Baring-Gould, William S. (1967). The Annotated Sherlock Holmes. Vol 2, pp. 527–528.
  12. ^ AP (16 August 2009). "Life outside The Office for Martin Freeman". Wales on Sunday (Western Mail and Echo). 
  13. ^ Tom Burnham, The Dictionary of Misinformation, Thomas Y. Crowell, 1976.
  14. ^, 'Elementary, My Dear Watson'. 2006.07.02.
  15. ^ 'House'-a-palooza, part 2: Robert Sean Leonard. (1 May 2006). Retrieved on 23 August 2011.
  16. ^ a b James Watson. (14 August 2011). Retrieved on 23 August 2011.
  17. ^ Batman: the complete history pg. 38
  18. ^ See, e.g., Batman: Year One.
  19. ^ Trials of the Demon!. Retrieved on 23 August 2011.
  20. ^ Elementary, Dear Data. Retrieved on 23 August 2011.
  21. ^ Thanksgiving (Heroes)
  22. ^ Mallory, Michael (2009). The Adventures of the Second Mrs. Watson. Dallas: Top Publications. ISBN 1929976577

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