The Case for the Real Dr. Watson

Holmes and Watson sit looking over a large paper

Sherlock Holmes canon prompts a lot of consideration and study, which is why there are so many articles and essays about Holmes’ world. The following essay by Rod Starling ( sets out to answer an important question: Was Watson real? Read on to learn more about this question and enter the world of Sherlockian scholarship.

The question as to the reality of Sherlock Holmes has remained unresolved for decades. However, if the reality of his biographer, Dr. Watson can be established, the reality of Sherlock Holmes may follow as a natural consequence. This paper will therefore set out the case for the reality of Dr. Watson.

The stories of Sherlock Holmes, the world’s first consulting detective, come to us through the published writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sir Arthur was a physician who was also a prolific writer. His early works included short stories and historical novels, some of which were published before he ever wrote a Sherlock Holmes story. In order to develop what may have been the actual events that lead up to the publication of the Sherlock Holmes saga, it is necessary to note and consider the few salient points that follow.

In the first place, it must be noted that the first Sherlock Holmes story was a full-length novel called A Study in Scarlet which was written in 1886 and published in 1887. The book begins with a Part 1 that is stated as “ Being a Reprint from the Reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D., Late of the Indian Army Medical Department .” Two things seem a little odd here. First, as will be shown later, referring to the book as a “Reprint” of something by John H. Watson, M.D. may have more significance than was originally realized by the initial reading public. Most of the early readers considered Sherlock Holmes a work of pure fiction but others considered him to be a real person right from the beginning. It will shortly be seen that there is something to be said in the stories themselves for both points of view.

The second odd thing about A Study in Scarlet is that when Sir Arthur wrote it, he was only 26 years of age and yet both Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson emerge as full blown characters and the stories were recounted with a certain maturity of style and content that one would consider to be quite unusual in such a young person. Creative genius is no doubt accountable to some extent. However, it must be remembered that Sir Arthur’s other works did not capture the attention of the public to anything near the extent to which the Sherlock Holmes stories did. No, there was something special about the Sherlock Holmes stories and it is that “something” that can hopefully be identified as “reality”.

Creative genius has shown itself before and since but no character, not even those of Dickens, Poe, Defoe or any others, has had the lasting impact of Sherlock Holmes. Walt Disney was a creative genius and yet his character, Mickey Mouse, did not come upon the world stage fully blown. Disney’s early efforts show the beginnings of Mickey in a character called “ Oswald”. Later, a closer character called “ Steamboat Willie “ appeared who finally evolved into Mickey Mouse. It was a gradual process. Not so with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. They arrived on the scene fully developed.

It seems very probable that there did in fact exist a real “consulting detective” who may at first have been a patient, and later a very good friend and room-mate, of a very real Dr. James Watson. That detective and Dr. James Watson evidently had a close relationship even to the point of working together on the detective’s cases, and the good doctor took to making notes about them. For some reason, Dr Watson never got his notes into story form and never published anything about the detective’s cases himself.

Sir Arthur and Dr. James Watson were friends and both were writers and members of the Portsmouth Literary and Scientific Society. However, when Sir Arthur joined the Portsmouth Literary and Scientific Society in 1883, having already achieved the status of a published author in his own right, it would appear that an arrangement was made whereby Sir Arthur would put Dr. James Watson’s notes into story form for publication. And so it came to be, three years later in 1886, that Sir Arthur wrote the novel A Study in Scarlet, the first of sixty Sherlock Holmes stories.

For some reason, Dr James Watson did not want his true name used in connection with the stories, particularly since it was apparently also arranged that Sir Arthur would have permission to add fictionalized stories to the true cases. However, Sir Arthur’s attempt to hide Dr Watson’s name was not very serious. At first, he chose the name Ormond Sacker but apparently Dr. Watson was not happy with that choice. All that Sir Arthur did therefore was to change the doctor’s first name from James to John and to add a middle initial of “H” without ever disclosing what it stood for. But even at that and as we shall see, Sir Arthur could not resist giving some hint that it was Dr. James Watson who was involved. Sir Arthur was born and raised in Scotland and there is a Scottish name “Hamish” which is the English equivalent of “James”. It is therefore reasonably conjectured that the “H” in John H. Watson stands for Hamish, the English equivalent of James.

In the Sherlock Holmes story entitled “The Man With the Twisted Lip”, published in 1891, Sir Arthur actually casts Dr. Watson as “James”, not “John”. Was that a slip of the pen or was it because Sir Arthur could not get it out of his mind that Dr James Watson was the real narrator with respect to the actual cases? It seems obvious that the latter is the case. To strengthen that belief, consider this: “ The Man With the Twisted Lip” was annotated in the 1993 Oxford University edition of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, where it is reported that on March 4, 1908, seventeen years after publication of “The Man With the Twisted Lip”, Sir Arthur again referred to Dr. James Watson in a letter to the editor of the Strand magazine. In it he stated that he could see no reason why he could not do an occasional story “…. under some such heading as “Reminiscences of Mr. Sherlock Holmes (Extracted from the diaries of his friend, Dr. James Watson)”!!! That would seem to be fair proof of where Sir Arthur got his factual Sherlock Holmes stories. Notice also that 22 years after he wrote A Study in Scarlet, which he prefaced as “Being a Reminiscence of John H.Watson, etc.”, he again referred to the fact that the further stories that he proposed to write would be taken from an independent source which in the first instance, A Study in Scarlet, he names as John H. Watson, M.D. and in the second, as Dr. James Watson.

Many of the details of the Sherlock Holmes stories, including the factual and physical settings, the residence at 221 Baker Street and the various and numerous parties to the plots, are too convoluted to analyze in this paper for the purpose of confirming the reality of the stories themselves. It appears that some were based on carefully screened facts and that others were pure fiction. There is, however, one observation that should be made in regard to the reality versus fictional aspect of the stories. In some, the fictional nature is obvious while in others there are many references to actual places, events and even people, although the exact identities of the latter are masked behind fictional names. Many times actual locations are referred to except with respect to places where the crimes or major action actually take place. Those locations are fictionalized which leads one to believe that in such cases, the stories are based on real events and thus the need to screen the actual locations. There are many instances of this in the stories and one particular case comes to mind that is illustrative of the point. In “ The Adventure of the “Three Gables,” published in 1920, reference is made to a certain professional gossip named Langdale Pike to whom Sherlock Holmes often turned for helpful information. That story informs us that Langdale Pike, obviously a fictional name, “spent his waking hours in the bow window of a St. James Street club.” In the excellent book Sherlock Holmes in London by Charles Viney, there is a photograph, taken in 1907, of a Hansom cab standing outside Boodle’s Club in St. James's Street, London. The photo not only shows what the caption calls “…..its famous bow window ” but also, upon close examination, a man standing in it! There were, at the time, four clubs in St. James's Street but only one had a bow window. Clearly then, Sir Arthur in 1920, was in possession of notes relating to a very real professional gossip who took as his vantage point the real bow window of the real Boodle’s Club and there is that photographic evidence of it taken 16 years before the story was published!

Based on the above, it may be concluded that Dr James Watson, for reasons we will never know, chose to collaborate with Sir Arthur in the publication of notes that he made concerning his association with a certain real “consulting detective”. The name of that detective has come down to us, as Sherlock Holmes and we are unable to confirm or deny the accuracy of it. It is probably accurate. Sir Arthur considered trying to mask the first name as “Sherringford” but eventually decided against it.

There is one final observation to be made in support of the contention that Sherlock Holmes was a real person. In his Preface to The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur first explains that after the completion of the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, he had determined to end the stories because at the time, he felt that his literary energies should not be directed too much into one channel. He then goes on to state, however, that he never regretted deciding, later on, to continue them. In particular, he said, “Had Holmes never existed I could not have done more, though he may perhaps have stood a little in the way of the recognition of my more serious work.” It seems very clear then that we have Sir Arthur’s own word for it that Sherlock Holmes did indeed exist!

Fact or fiction, it has rightly been noted that Sherlock Holmes has been subsumed into the collective consciousness and someone else who wrestled with the question of his reality put it very succinctly: “Sherlock Holmes is a man who never lived and will never die,” and that is as much as any man could hope for and a happy note upon which to end this paper.