Dr John H. Watson is a fictional character, the friend, confidante and biographer of Sherlock Holmes, the fictional 19th-century detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Various (extra-canonical) sources give Watson's birth date as August 7, 1852 and his full name as Dr John Hamish Watson. In the stories, Watson shared lodgings with Holmes in large parts of the last two decades of the 1800s and soon emerged as the assistant and biographer of the great detective.
Watson's presence cements itself in his narratives of all four novels and 52 of the 56 original short-stories in the series; of the remaining four, two are narrated by Holmes, and two are in the third person.
The original stories provide no details about Watson's life after 1914 (when he assisted Holmes one last time in the story "His Last Bow"). Holmes' untiring biographer was apparently still alive in 1927, when the last story ("The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place") appeared. In Nicholas Meyer's revisionist novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Watson was portrayed as still around in 1939, but apparently died that year or shortly afterwards.
In the debut Holmes story A Study in Scarlet (published in 1888), 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 detail, but in too romantic and sentimental a manner for Holmes's 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, absent-mindedly 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"). Conan Doyle made mention of a second wife in The Illustrious Client and The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier, but this wife was never named nor elaborated upon in subsequent tales. American author Michael Mallory began a series of stories in the mid-1990s featuring this second wife, whom he called Amelia Watson. In Sherlock Holmes's War of the Worlds, Watson's second wife is Violet Hunter, from The Adventure of the Copper Beeches.
Watson is a physician of some experience (as was Conan Doyle). Watson had served in the British Army medical corps (attached to the 66th Foot) in Afghanistan, but was discharged following an injury 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. Watson's character was based upon the 66th regiment's Medical Officer, Surgeon Major A F Preston, who was wounded in the Battle of Maiwand. It is possible that 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.
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". In The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire we learn that Watson had played rugby for Blackheath (a very well-respected London club). 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.
Watson is well aware of both the limits of his abilities and Holmes' reliance on him:
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 almost-superhuman 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." 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: he has a definite strain of "pawky humour", as Holmes observes in The Valley of Fear; 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: "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 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, 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".
While Watson lacked Holmes's brilliance, he was still a fully competent doctor, and his knowledge would prove useful on several occasions. In "The Adventure of Silver Blaze", his identification of a certain type of surgical knife confirms Holmes's suspicions and helps him solve a crucial link in the 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—prompted Holmes to realise that their killer was left-handed, which allowed him to significantly 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.
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.
In the first chapter of the next story, 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 unraveling it.”
Watson in his narrative admits that “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, Watson in his later stories 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.” It is at this point that Holmes understands why Watson wrote the way he did, and he has always referred to him as my "faithful friend and biographer".
Outside the fiction, Holmes’ deprecating remarks on Watson’s narratives may be regarded as Conan Doyle’s self-ironic comments on his own authorship. When for decades he continued to write new Holmes stories to satisfy an indulgent public, he may indeed have seen himself as “pandering to popular taste”, since he felt that 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).
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.”
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 openly 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]...it is only natural that I should dwell rather upon his successes than upon his failures.”
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 in no way “culminate” in this story; there were some twenty stories yet to come. Clearly Watson, or indeed Conan Doyle, did not foresee this at the time.
As stated at the beginning of "The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger", Watson was able to cooperate with Holmes during 17 of the 23 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’ retirement (ca. 1903), 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’ 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’ 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’ retirement, Watson often seems to depend on special permission from his friend for the publication of further stories. Yet he could also receive unsolicited suggestions from Holmes for what stories to tell, as recounted at the beginning of “The Adventure of the Devil's Foot". After receiving a telegram from Holmes, Watson promptly started to “hunt out the notes which give me the exact details of the case and to lay the narrative before my readers”.
The “notes” as such are described 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. 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. This former part is clearly meant to be written by Watson, 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 once again detailing the earlier life of a protagonist in America. This time Conan Doyle did insert 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”. Part 2 is written in a novel-like 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.)
It can be said that Conan Doyle did not strictly adhere to the literary fiction that the various Holmes stories are Watson’s reports of real-life events. If they were, their author would have been a person who on occasion could be both tactless and indiscreet. 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’ biographer, but this is not always confirmed by the stories themselves.
Not only villains, but even Holmes’ clients are sometimes described in a less than flattering manner. In "The Red-Headed League", Watson introduces Jabez Wilson like this: “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.” Watson’s discretion clearly was not to be relied upon, since he wrote and published an account of the case.
Even Holmes himself is not always described in a very flattering terms. While Watson expresses the greatest admiration for Holmes’ skills as a detective, he also divulges to the public certain details that his friend would likely consider private and sensitive, if the great sleuth and his chronicler had been real people. Though the use of cocaine was quite legal in the 1800s, it is questionable if Holmes would have liked to see published such detailed descriptions of his vice as the one Watson presents in the first chapter of The Sign of Four. Elsewhere, Watson’s descriptions of Holmes paint a picture of a man who is certainly brilliant, but also untidy, eccentric, somewhat vain and often rather arrogant. Normally a writer would choose his words with more care when publishing accounts of the life of his closest friend.
It could be argued that Holmes, with his passion for exact statements, would recognize Watson’s descriptions as accurate and actually prefer them to a more sanitized presentation of himself. It does, however, seem strange that Holmes would allow Watson to publish occasional snotty comments about even the clients seeking Holmes’ help.
In the “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 could obviously make Mycroft a target for Britain’s enemies, and his position should be kept strictly secret. Yet Watson was not above publishing the confidential information Holmes had entrusted him with. (The story is however set in 1895; since it was not published before 1912, we are perhaps to assume that Mycroft may have retired or even died in the meantime, and so there was no need for secrecy anymore.)
At the end of "The Boscombe Valley Mystery", Watson writes about the person Holmes found to be guilty of the murder concerned: “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.” Unless, that is, they happened to pick up the issue of Strand Magazine where Watson sets out a full account of the case! In real life, it would have been pure hypocrisy on Watson’s part to express his hopes that these two would remain blissfully ignorant when he himself had just presented the whole story of the murderous father to the public.
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.”
But later in the same story, Watson twice includes substantial quotations from newspaper articles that were supposedly published during the days when Holmes worked on this case. In the universe presupposed by the story, where these articles were really in print, they would have allowed any thorough researcher to precisely date the events related by Watson—making nonsense of his initial refusal to divulge the even the “decade” when this happened.
After identifying the perpetrator, Holmes in some stories decides to let him off the hook instead of exposing him. Examples include "The Man with the Twisted Lip" and "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle". At the end of "The Adventure of the Abbey Grange", Holmes even uses Watson himself as a one-man jury, and the 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.
In "A Case of Identity", Miss Mary Sutherland hires Holmes to look into the fate of her beloved Hosmer Angel, who disappeared on their wedding day. Holmes determines that "Angel" was a disguised impostor who never loved her back, but he opts not to tell his client, since he feels sure she would not believe him anyway and it is better to let her keep her delusion. Watson apparently disagreed, since he published the whole story in Strand Magazine. One may wonder how Miss Sutherland reacted when she finally learnt about Holmes' conclusions in this less-than-discreet fashion.
In “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger”, Watson notes that he has “made a slight change of name and place” when presenting that story. Possibly we are to assume that many of the stories are told in a similar manner, pseudonyms replacing the “real” names of the people (and sometimes places) involved. Still, clients of Holmes that brought sensitive cases to the detective might well have dreaded how they and their problems would later be portrayed by Watson, who could sometimes be rather merciless and indiscreet in his descriptions. Even labeling the stories “adventures” would in real life have been rather insulting: given the murders and tragedies often involved, many of Holmes’ clients could hardly have appreciated such playful and insensitive titles.
Yet if Conan Doyle had stuck more closely to the format a real Watson would likely have used when describing the exploits of a real Holmes, this would hardly have improved the quality of the tales. Many colorful details would have had to be omitted, and the depiction of the Great Detective would have been far more one-dimensional (a real Watson suppressing any unflattering details to maintain his friendship with Holmes). Readers tend to be untroubled by the sometimes very obvious incongruity between the theoretical format and the stories themselves—as when Watson publishes information that according to his own stories should have remained secret indefinitely.
Another well-liked depiction was by actor André Morell in the 1959 film version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Morell was particularly keen that his portrayal 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. 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 (who starts the rumor 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).
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; 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' existence after he failed to get the post.
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' take on Watson was also close to the one depicted in the Conan Doyle stories.
In January 1998, Jim French Productions received the rights from the estate of Dame Jean Conan to produce new radio stories of Holmes and Watson with John Gilbert and Lawrence Albert 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 Albert carrying on the standard set by Michael Williams. His, Albert's, Watson is portrayed as Doyle set him down in the canon and in 2005 when French decided to take on producing Doyle's original stories with John Patrick Lowrie as Holmes, Albert was well able to give the listeners a true depiction of 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. (In one episode, House also 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.
However, in later stories, the character Alfred Pennyworth fills the role better, being the Dark Knight's doctor, friend and confident. He also has a British military background where he practiced medicine on the battlefield.