Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson

The relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson has been the subject of much interest since Arthur Conan Doyle's detective stories first appeared in the Victoria Era. What was it that kept these two partners together?

sherlock holmes hat sherlock holmes pipe

Who Was Dr. Watson

As the Sherlock Holmes adventures first started, Dr. Watson was a room-mate who shared the apartment at 221 B. Baker Street, London, with his new acquaintance, Sherlock Holmes.

The two were introduced by a mutual acquaintance - a former high-school classmate of Watson's; and former college class-mate of Sherlock's. Since both needed living quarters but had to share the expense, the friend introduces the two and then disappears permanently from the scene.

The two do not hit it off immediately, though they converse and appear somewhat cordial. Dr. Watson has the inconvenience of being asked to leave the shared living-room when a variety of guests appear to speak to Holmes. The intrigue begins.

Of course, as we all know, Watson eventually becomes friends with the unsociable Holmes and begins to accompany him on some of his adventures. With time, he becomes an associate - never a full-fledged partner.

And of course, as all fans of the high aclaimed fictitious series know, Watson becomes the biographer who records the successful cases of the rising detective. A very effective literary technique, Sir Doyle!

Biography of Dr. John H. Watson

Here and there throughout the 58 stories, Dr. Watson drops a few little nuggets about himself. This is what we know:
  • He is of Bohemian descent (as was Holmes)

  • He was a medical doctor (graduated 1878 from the University of London)

  • He served as a surgeon in the British Army in India

  • He was seriously injured in the battle of Maiwand. Apparently he suffered a shattered shoulder bone, grazed subclavian army, leg injury, then almost died of enteric fever.

  • His health "irretrievably ruined" he was sent to England on a pension of one-half his normal salary.

  • He had no relatives in England. The only mention of relations is a father and brother who are both dead. His brother was an alcoholic. No other family is mentioned.

  • Prior to his injury he had traveled widely, including Europe, Afganistan, and India.

  • His primary vice was gambling which he appeared to be addicted to.

  • Eight years after meeting Holmes and being his roommate, he became engaged to Mary, one of Holmes' clients.

  • His marriage seemed to be the major event of his life, and in the earliest set of stories he marked time by how long he had been married (approximately July 1888 - there are some discrepencies in the stories on dating and other details.)

  • At the time of his marriage, he returned to medical practice in order to support himself and his wife. He purchased a practice from another physician.

  • In the five to six years of his marriage, he continued to practice medicine but still occasionally was invited to accompany Holmes on a case.

  • His wife died of an unknown cause apparently in late 1893 or early 1894. They had no children.

  • He became re-acquainted with Holmes in April 1894, after a three-year absence in which Holmes was believed to be dead.

  • In August of 1894, he sold his medical practice (to a cousin of Holmes') and returned to 221 B. Baker as Holmes' partner.

  • He continued to work with Holmes for approximately another 9 years, then returned to medical practice again and saw Holmes only a few times after that.

  • Watson's personality was quiet, humble, and unassuming. He was compassionate to those in need and loyal to his friend.

It's Elementary, Watson

Relationship between Holmes and Watson

Of course, at the very least, we know that the presence of Watson was a literary technique used by Doyle to build suspense in his story. Through the eyes of Watson, the reader was like a fly on the wall - watching Holmes, pondering the trail of evidence, and surprised when the solution was announced.

But we may still ask, "Why Watson?"

Sure, the two became roommates and friends in the days when Watson was an invalid and Holmes just starting his unlikely career and money was short for both. But certainly the successful Holmes could have found another associate than to take one of London's medical doctors out of practice to accompany him on his trips.

From The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier

Holmes: "Speaking of my old friend and biographer, I would take this opportunity to remark tht if I burden myself with a companion in my various little inquiries it is not done out of sentiment or caprice, but it is that Watson has some remarkable characteristics of his own to which in his modesty he has given small attention amid his exaggerated estimates of my own performances."

Body Guard

One of the obvious reasons Holmes depended on Watson was his usefulness as a marksman. He was, you remember, a military man recently back from the war when they met. Frequently, Holmes would casually request that Watson take a weapon as they left their apartment on Baker Street.

In the Adventure of the Norwood Builder, Holmes remarked to Watson, "(There was) no prospect of danger, or I should not dream of stirring out without you."

Watson, of course, never bragged about his skills with a pistol, but often Holmes was depending on it.

From The Problem of Thor Bridge

Holmes: "Watson, I have some recollecgtion that you go armed upon these excursions of ours."

Medical Detective

Watson never identified himself as a coroner, but the combination of his medical skills, military training, and detective skills would have been an assett to Sherlock. Murder was frequently the crime they set out to solve, so Watson's skills in this department would have been beneficial.

Sounding Board

It is obvious that Holmes needed someone - and that someone was Watson - who he could discuss cases with. Too some extent it was a literary technique - Holmes giving the details to Watson as a train or carriage carried them to their destination. But in a realistic sense every detective needs to "think out loud" as they go over the details of a case to see if they have missed anything.

From The Adventure of the Creeping Man

The relations between us in those latter days were peculiar. He was a man of habits, narrow and concentrated habits, and I had become one of them. As an institution I was like the violin, the shag tobacco, the old black pipe, the index books, and other perhaps less excusable. When it was a case of active work and a comrade was needed upon whose nerve he could place some reliance, my role was obvious. But aprt from this I had uses. I was a whetsone for his mind.
Second Man Sometimes, as Holmes partner, Watson was often sent on a mission himself. This might be because Holmes was otherwise busy - with the same case or another one. It usually ended up with Watson being chastised for clues he overlooked.

In the early years, Holmes also had the "Baker Street Irregulars," a group of young Arab street boys who helped him with miscellaneous tasks. In the later years, Holmes employed other adults as his assistants. But it is obvious, that Watson was the assistant he valued the highest.

Gambling

Most of the time, the relationship appeared to be one way - Watson helping Sherlock. In regards to Watson's gambling habit, Sherlock tried to help his friend by keeping his checkbook locked up to avoid temptation.

From The Adventure of the Shoscombe Old Place

Holmes: "By the way, Watson, you know something of racing?" Watson: "I ought to. I pay for it with about half my wound pension."

More Quotes on Watson & Holmes

Companionship

Both men were fairly reserved, not particularly social or out-going, but were called upon to interact with the public constantly in their respective careers.

It is probable the two found each other's company amicable. They could talk to each other when the situation demanded, but otherwise were perfectly content to be left to their own books and thoughts.

Was Their More?

In recent years, some have concluded that the two roommates were gay. For some, that seems a logical conclusion to two middle age bachelors rooming together for 20 years. After all, either could have afforded to buy a large country home once their careers became established.

Instead, they seemed to prefer the locale of Baker Street, and the cooking and cleaning of the trusted Mrs. Hudson.

And what might we think of Watson's statements about "my intimate friend?" Certainly today we would conclude that any such reference was to a romantic relationship.

Keep in mind that this WAS Victorian England. The phrase "intimate friend" was closer to "good buddy" and indicated a close friendship compared to a casual acquaintance. At the same time, Doyle's adoring fan base would likely have had a different reaction if they read that phrase the same way we would today.

Watson's marriage and his desire to see his friend in a relationship might also suggest nothing else existed between the two.

Ultimately, it is a FICTION series, and as such the men's orientation was no more or less than what their creator made them to be. Since he is not here to ask, each reader is free to draw their own conclusion.

Friends Until the End

One of my favorite stories is The Last Bow. The two former associates are briefly reunited for a final case together. While waiting for their prisoner to be picked up by the authorities, Holmes and Watson converse quietly "for the last time."

They became acquainted when they were unknown and financially struggling; now they are acclaimed and economically independent. No longer is Watson the underling-detective. They are friends and equals.


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