Arthur Conan Doyle probably had more in common with his second-most famous creation, Dr. Watson, than he did with Sherlock Holmes. Specifically, he too was a doctor – and that training gave him the tools he needed to write his stories. As a student at the University of Edinburgh, he met a famous surgeon named John Bell, renowned for his use of deductive reasoning to solve medical mysteries. Conan Doyle later claimed that Bell was the logical inspiration for Holmes, although Bell begged to differ. Bell’s modesty aside, there definitely seems to be a lot more Watson coming from Conan Doyle’s true-life experiences. After med school, the young doctor went off to see the world, traveling as a ship’s surgeon to the Arctic and West Africa and witnessing three wars along the way. A Study in Scarlet, the first of the four Sherlock Holmes novels, begins with a similar story: Dr. Watson has just come back from the Afghan war, where he has encountered considerable misfortune.

The name “Sherlock” also came from Conan Doyle’s life – his grandmother was named Jane Sherlock. The mystery surrounding “Holmes,” though, is a bit more complicated. The detective was probably named after a man Doyle admired; the poet Oliver Wendell Holmes. But the Sherlock Holmes Museum at 221b Baker Street in London offers hints in another direction. Its official material read: “No official records of the lodgers who lived here in Victorian times exist. Local authority records do state that the house was registered as a lodging house between 1860-1934, and that the maids who worked in it were related to a Mr. Holmes. A Dr. Watson also lived next door in the 1890s, as an “artificial teeth manufacturer.”

Conan Doyle practiced medicine in several towns around the United Kingdom; however, he never saw any success from the profession. In fact, he started writing stories to supplement his income, and Sherlock Holmes first appeared in print in 1887 in Beeton’s Christmas Annual. Within three years, Doyle had written two Holmes novels, and a new magazine called Strand had started serializing his stories. These finally made Holmes a hit. A good thing, too, since Doyle’s ophthalmology practice was thoroughly unsuccessful: he wrote in his autobiography that he didn’t see a single patient.

Elementary Education

The truth is Holmes never actually says “elementary, my dear Watson;” the closest he comes is plain old “elementary,” in the short story “The Crooked Man.” “Elementary, my dear Watson” probably originated in one of the many riffs on the Holmes stories that were popular in the early 1900s. The 1929 film The Return of Sherlock Holmes is one candidate, since the line appears in the final scene. The 1899 play Sherlock Holmes is another possibility; William Gillette, who directed and starred, is reported to have delivered the line, “Oh, this is elementary, my dear Watson.” If so, he did it off the cuff – it’s not in the script.

[Published in Mental_foss In The Beginning, Mary Carmichael, Will Pearson, Mangesh Hattikudur, eds., HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022, 2007; p. 29]

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