In Defense of John H Watson, MD

This is Chips speaking, and I am sure that Selena is speaking 100 percent beside me when we post this defense of our beloved Dr Watson. As we know, Holmes could not have existed so successfully without Watson and his invaluable aid, love, and devotion through their  years of companionship.

Robert Perrett (JHWS “Sampson”) calls our attention to an article in the Baker Street Journal (v45n4, December 1995) confirming what we have always believed. We’ll post just a sample here, but if you get the chance to read the whole thing, do!

[The article appears on p. 221, which I find delightful. I’ve taken the liberty of cleaning up some errors that appear in the PDF copy in the eBSJ. —Selena Buttons]

By Harlan Umansky

While Sherlock Holmes is lauded, idolized even venerated by his colleagues, Dr. Watson,has become a stereotype for all that is bumbling, non-comprehending, mindlessly courageous, physically powerfully built, mentally dull. Edmund Pearson has characterized him as Boobus Brittanicus. In a filmed interview Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who should have known better, spoke of “the stupid Watson.”

This derogatory view of Watson probably began with Msgr. Ronald Knox in his famous decalogue for writers of mysteries. Rule 9 declares, “The stupid friend of the detective, the Watsons must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly below that of the average reader.”

Something of this denigrating delineation of Watson may be due to his unalloyed integrity, for he never hesitates to show himself at a disadvantage if doing so makes our view of Holmes all the more impressive.

[…]However, the most potent reason for the widespread stereotype of Watson is very likely the manner in which the doctor was portrayed by Nigel Bruce in the 13 motion pictures featuring Basil Rathbone as Sherlock. Here indeed was the incarnation of Col. Blimp. In this portrayal we are confronted with a somewhat corpulent medical man whose talent for bumbling is equalled, if not exceeded, only by his inability to perceive the obvious. Could so intellectually inept a bungler have acquired a medical degree, become the lifelong friend and associate of a genius like Sherlock Holmes, and penned the marvelous adventures that have become an international treasure for over a hundred years? The answer cannot be other than a resounding no!

The fact is that the stereotype is totally false. Watson the comic foil, Watson the failed observer of the apparent, Watson the eternal bungler, Watson the prototype of Oliver Hardy, Watson the womanizer, Watson the incompetent physician, all these and more are elements of a myth so pervasive that it is almost impossible to eradicate from the mind of the public.
It is true that no one, including Watson, possessed Holmes’s breadth and depth of specialized knowledge, such as the history of crimes the varieties and locations of mud in the different sections of London, the diversified types of bicycle tires, and the multiple classes of perfumes. But that is more a tribute to Holmes’s professional qualifications than it is an indictment of Watson’s alleged mental retardation.

Like the rest of us mere mortals, Watson soon discovered that his friend’s mind functioned on a lofty level that he could never attain or fully comprehend but could only be in awe of. Despite this perhaps ego-shattering discovery, Watson faithfully assisted the great detective in many of his cases and penned a number of Sherlock’s adventures in which he (Watson) often played a less than distinguished role. However, Watson’s chronicles argue both a modesty and a rare ability at self-evaluation that are in themselves as admirable as they are unique.

[…]Watson was an Englishman whose unhesitating valor Holmes depended upon and often relied on. He was wounded at the Battle of Maiwand in the Second Afghan War, a bloody battle in which the British were outnumbered, outgunned, overwhelmed, and finally routed. Medical officers are usually in the rear, fairly safe from actual combat. Watson’s being wounded persuades me at least that he was by his own choice fairly dose to the fearful fighting, that he was tending to the wounded nearer to the front than he was required to be, and that he was in typical Watsonian fashion, less concerned with his own safety than with the welfare of others.

[…]But surely Watson’s greatest talent is that of panning in gripping narrative form the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Rather than relating them in flat reportorial style or dry police procedural fashions he conceived and brilliantly carried out the idea of relating them in the form of novels and short stories. He may not have been the first to use the technique of the retrospective or the flashback, but he made use of that authorial device in exciting and ingenious fashion, as in, for example The Valley of Fear and A Study in Scarlet. So successful was Watson in casting the adventures and cases in his chosen narrative form that they are read and re-read today by millions the world over. Mycroft’s compliment, “I hear of Sherlock everywhere since you became his chronicler,” has been true ever since the first narrative appeared, Obviously the world would know very little, if anything about Sherlock Holmes were it not for the writings of Watson and his noteworthy literary skills, for the name of the great detective appears nowhere in the police records of the day nor in the news reports of the period. Indeed, were it not for Watson, there would be no such organizations as the Baker Street Irregulars or The Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes. Indeed, once again, were it not for Watson there would be no plaques around the world commemorating significant events in the career of the Master. In a very real sense, Watson is our progenitor and we are his offspring. […]

Of Watson we may well say in summary, as Holmes quotes Flaubert in quite another connection in A Case of Identity, “The man is nothing. The work is everything.”

Watson, of course, had his faults and failings. He also had his virtues and his talents. On balance he emerges not as a light-weight hanger-on, a mere go-fer, a mediocre follower, but rather as an invaluable ally, a worthy colleague, a peerless companion. The world in general and we Sherlockians in particular owe to John H. Watson, M.D., a monumental debt of gratitude that we can only acknowledge but can never replay.

The defense rests.


In Defense of John H Watson, MD — 4 Comments

  1. Thanks so much for reprinting that article by Harlan Umansky. Some of us remember Harlan well. He was one of the founders of Mrs. Hudson’s Cliffwellers and one of its guiding lights until his passing. Mrs. Hudson’s was a group noted for its humor mixed with its scholarship, for songs. games, hilarious quizzes, and the family feeling that pervaded the membership. He is still missed among Sherlockians on the western side of the Hudson and elsewhere.

  2. Capital! It’s rather shocking to realise that many earlier dramatisations reduced the character of Dr Watson to little more than what used to be known in the theatre as a spear-carrier – when they didn’t omit him altogether. Even in William Gillette’s play, Watson’s role isn’t really important before the last act, and as late as Jerome Coopersmith’s musical “Baker Street” in 1965 the good Doctor is a less important character than Irene Adler and Professor Moriarty. At least those two portray Watson as an intelligent and sympathetic person. Except in deliberate parodies, it seems to have been Nigel Bruce’s portrayal that established him as what someone memorably called the Boobus Britannicus – and Bruce was, after all, only doing what the script and the director required. (In his later radio plays, co-written by Denis Green, his performance is notably less foolish.) Someone presumably thought that Holmes would appear more intelligent partnered with a stupid Watson. A couple of years ago I took part in a debate at the Museum of London as to which actor was the best Dr Watson. The winner, not really surprisingly, was Martin Freeman, with David Burke coming second – but all those nominated were excellent, including my own candidate. I championed Andre Morell – not because I think his Watson was better than the others but because I know he was more important. He was the first to make a real impression as the true Dr Watson in a major screen production: the 1959 Hammer “Hound of the Baskervilles” – intelligent, educated, courageous, loyal and personable. As I said, the true Dr Watson.

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