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Sherlock Holmes: Things to Know About Doctor John Watson

Christopher Peruzzi has been a fan of Sherlock Holmes for over 35 years. He writes about Sherlock, zombies, comics, and philosophy.

I am lost without my Boswell

Doctor John Watson (as portrayed by Edward Hardwicke - left) with Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett - right)

Doctor John Watson (as portrayed by Edward Hardwicke - left) with Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett - right)

You can't have a series of articles about Sherlock Holmes without talking about Doctor John Watson. It's almost impossible. Where there is Holmes there usually must be a Watson. (There have been one or two stories written by Doyle and voiced from Holmes' account after he'd left Baker's Street and retired in Sussex.)

Many people believe that the character of Sherlock Holmes was based on one of Doyle's medical teachers, Doctor Joseph Bell. Bell was a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and was a student of observation and deduction. To illustrate this, he would often pick a stranger and, by observing him, deduce his occupation and recent activities.

Doctor Watson was based on Doyle, himself.

Watson realistically is the "everyman". Doyle uses him as a device to explain what Holmes does. In a very basic sense he is the father of "fair play" in mystery writing. All of the facts and all of the observances are laid out before the reader. Holmes shows the deductions that can be made from those facts through Watson's narration.

Watson is not stupid

Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson (Basil Rathbone on right)

Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson (Basil Rathbone on right)

Unlike the portrayal of Nigel Bruce's Watson in the 1940s movies (with Basil Rathbone) Watson is not an idiot. He is not a bumbler (at least in most cases). He represents normal, if not slightly higher, intelligence. Remember, he's a medical man. He has expertise as a doctor. It is not that Watson is stupid. He is intelligent, but lacking in insight.

In the words of Holmes himself, "I am bound to say that in all the accounts which you have been so good as to give of my own small achievements you have habitually underrated your own abilities. It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it. I confess, my dear fellow, that I am very much in your debt."

Watson's primary job is to be Holmes biographer. He also serves to work with Holmes as a reinforcement arm for any job that requires physical back up or gun play.

Wound and Physical Appearance

Jude Law as Doctor Watson (from Sherlock Holmes)

Jude Law as Doctor Watson (from Sherlock Holmes)

Watson was wounded in the Anglo-Afghan War. However, Doyle was never able to make up his mind as to where his wound actually was. Some stories report the wound was in his shoulder, others say it was his leg. No one is quite sure. Some movies, not knowing exactly where the wound is, like The Seven Percent Solution, chose to wound Watson in both places instead.

While some movie producers cast older men to play Watson, he is not older than Holmes. Ideally, they are both around the same age. (In many cases, Holmes appears as older.)

Despite being wounded, Watson is a crack shot with a pistol and is quite capable when Holmes requires the physical assistance of a brave man who has seen combat. Doyle describes Watson as "brown as a walnut and as thin as a lathe" in A Study in Scarlet. He is usually described as strongly built, of a stature either average or slightly above average, with a thick, strong neck and a small mustache.


The new Holmes and Watson  (Martin Freeman as Watson (L) and Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes (R))

The new Holmes and Watson (Martin Freeman as Watson (L) and Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes (R))

The two adjectives that best describe Watson's personality are "straightforward" and "true".

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He is a dependable man, who despite many of the trials he's been put upon, continues to remain with Holmes. I think the best line from any Sherlock Holmes movie came from Jude Law portraying Watson, "I never complain! How am I complaining? When do I ever complain about you practicing the violin at three in the morning, or your mess, your general lack of hygiene, or the fact that you steal my clothes? When have I ever complained about you setting fire to my rooms? Or, or, the fact that you experiment on my dog?"

That is what every Watson fan has been dying to hear from the character.

Even after Watson marries, he will answer to Holmes' call whenever he needs him.

Prior to his first marriage to Mary Morstan (from The Sign of Four) Watson was described as having an eye for the ladies. Watson has been known to appreciate the turn of a woman's ankle and even Holmes acknowledges that "the fair sex is your department" in the Adventure of the Second Stain.

Watson's other quirk, though widely not spoken of, is that he has a little bit of a gambling problem. Holmes has done him the favor of locking his extra money in a desk drawer and was able to use that as one of the chain of facts that Watson had decided to not invest in a South African venture because Watson had cue chalk on his index finger.

Final Words

James Mason and Christopher Plummer as Watson and Holmes (respectively) in Murder by Decree

James Mason and Christopher Plummer as Watson and Holmes (respectively) in Murder by Decree

As I said, Watson's role in these stories, more than anything else, is to be Holmes chronicler. He logs the facts of the story (or romanticizes them in Holmes' opinon). This serves to bring credit to Holmes' fame in the stories as he typically allows the police to take credit for his cases.

Watson is Holmes' chief ally and his dearest friend. The partnership between Holmes and Watson is one of the primary examples of "hero and sidekick". His unimaginative exposition is the perfect catalyst to Holmes' explanations and illuminations.

The pair of them being the expert logician with the military marksman allied for good are reflected darkly as the partnership between Professor Moriarty and Col. Sebastian Moran for evil. While Doyle never wrote a story comparing the two pairs, it is interesting to observe that fact.

Dr. Watson stands as a symbol of loyalty and friendship that has been so strong and well received in literature that it has lasted into this century and will last into the next.

Watsons in Film

Questions & Answers

Question: What was Watson’s dog's name in the Sherlock Holmes stories?

Answer: I don’t believe he had a dog within the canon.

Question: In the Sherlock Holmes books, what was Watson's military rank?

Answer: John Watson was a Captain, as most doctors are. Unless you’re in the Navy and then it’s Commander.

Question: Did the Sherlock Holmes character, Watson, have a psychological disorder?

Answer: There is nothing in the canon that would imply that outside of compulsive gambling.

© 2012 Christopher Peruzzi


Christopher Peruzzi (author) from Freehold, NJ on January 19, 2020:


A good observation.

Yes, among the many things that Watson is, he is the "every man" (meaning he's here to represent the average person). Watson is not stupid, he is a medical man - which requires intelligence, diagnostic talent, and a strong stomach at times.

He's also a good narration device used by Doyle to explain what Holmes so readily deduces. These deductions obviously need to be explained to the reader, otherwise, the reader would never know how Holmes magically came up with the answer.

We also must remember that Watson's version of history was often romanticized. Like Doyle, he needed to make the story more exciting and interesting to the reader - Holmes, himself, many times had complained that Watson lost the opportunity to use his writing to instruct the reader and, had Watson listened to him, his stories would have been as dry and boring as a lecture on deductive reasoning.

I highly recommend a viewing of Mister Holmes (with Ian McKellen) to see the difference between the reality and the fantasy that Watson writes about. So while we can say that Watson is the documenter of Holmes' adventures, we can't necessarily say he was a "historian" as that would require absolute fact rather than Watson's embellishments.

John Dove on January 18, 2020:

Hi Christopher--

I love Arthur Conan Doyle and his Sherlockian stories. Your insights into Dr, John Watson are very well taken. I like your descriptions of the various actors who have played Watson.

Doyle uses Watson, not only as a "historian" for writing about Holmes' cases but as a confident and friend whom Holmes can share his insights as each case unfolds.


Christopher Peruzzi (author) from Freehold, NJ on May 07, 2019:


Not for nothing, after yet another viewing of Downey Jr.'s Holmes, I think Law's Watson is probably one of the best. At the very least, the most believable.

Sherlockian on May 05, 2019:

Who else voted for J.L.?

Celiegirl on July 04, 2012:

Thank you for the enlightening details about the relationship, Watson is awesome, tolerant, faithful and a genius in his own right.

Christopher Peruzzi (author) from Freehold, NJ on April 09, 2012:


One of the the items that I've left out because it's not in the canon but it's usually in almost every media representation of Dr. Watson is that Holmes usually sticks Watson with the bill for everything.

Be on the look out for "Pay the man, Watson" from Holmes' lips.

parwatisingari from India on April 09, 2012:

Suddenly I empathize with watson.

Jaye Denman from Deep South, USA on April 08, 2012:

I'll look for that DVD.

I have read a book (the name of which I can't recall)about Dr. Bell's influence on Conan Doyle and how he translated Dr. Bell's "method" into Sherlock's deductive method. Had Doyle not been taught by Dr. Bell, there might not have been a Sherlock Holmes...or at least, not one so intriguing!

Christopher Peruzzi (author) from Freehold, NJ on April 08, 2012:

If you get a chance, try to get your hands on "Murder Rooms: Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes". It ran on Mystery! and was about Arthur Conan Doyle and Doctor Johnathan Bell.

It's definitely worth a watch.

Jaye Denman from Deep South, USA on April 08, 2012:

I'm a long-time Sherlock and Watson fan. Jeremy Brett was the definitive Sherlock and (of the two actors who played Watson in the Granada series) I preferred Edward Hardwicke. I own the complete set of DVDs from the series and enjoy re-viewing them frequently. I also own the complete Holmes canon in book form and re-read all the stories periodically...signs of a Sherlock Holmes addict!

Watson's role in the stories was certainly a strong as well as necessary one. Holmes needed Watson, and Watson was happy to comply.

I recently read The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes, a biography of Arthur Conan Doyle, and the author Andrew Lycett states that John Watson was patterned after an Edinburgh-born general practitioner named James Watson who worked in China for many years before he returned to a practice in the area near Doyle.

I will always be grateful to Doyle for creating the Holmes canon, but that is all I can find to like about him after reading his life story. He was sadly lacking in character. Conan Doyle had a long-term extramarital affair while his wife was dying from a terminal disease, married his mistress with unseemly haste soon after his wife's death and then proceeded to treat his first two children (by the first wife) very badly because his second wife was jealous of them. He also left his literary estate to his second "set" of children, completely cutting out the first two. It's very fitting, I think, that his sons by his second wife turned out to be real jerks!

Sharon O'Brien on April 08, 2012:

Very Good. Nice to see Watson get his due, which has been severely neglected through the years (especially in the days of the Basil Rathbone Holmes).

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