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An ex–military surgeon whose army career was ended by a bullet and a bout of enteric fever, Watson is leading a “comfortless, meaningless existence” (STUD) when he agrees to share a set of rooms at 221 Baker Street with Sherlock Holmes.
Watson, a former rugby player, is “a middle-sized, strongly built” man with a mustache, square jaw, and thick neck (CHAS), though he is “thin as a lath and brown as a nut” when we first see him. Shortly after their introduction he tells Holmes, “my nerves are shaken, and I get up at all sorts of ungodly hours, and I am extremely lazy. I have another set of vices when I’m well.” Watson may be a slugabed, and his unspecified vices might include an eye for the ladies since he claims “an experience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents” (SIGN), but the rest of this slighting assessment is contradicted by his own accounts. Though not as observant or quick-witted as Holmes, he can present facts in a lucid and entertaining manner, and after some initial skepticism he becomes adept at following Holmes’s deductions. Perpetually shocked by humanity’s capacity for evil yet not disheartened by it, he is sensible, compassionate, and unshakably loyal.
A peripatetic life (he earned his doctorate at the University of Edinburgh and worked at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London before the military service that took him to Afghanistan) brought Watson many acquaintances, but apparently few close friends aside from Holmes. His father and an elder brother, both deceased, are mentioned shortly before the first appearance of Watson’s only canonically identified spouse, Mary Morstan. (An unnamed wife appears in stories both pre- and postdating Watson’s marriage to Mary, which implies that he wed at least one other woman.) His duties as a husband and a physician caused Watson to drift away from Holmes, but he occasionally rejoined his friend for a case. When Holmes reappears after the Great Hiatus, Watson sells his practice (interestingly, the buyer is a distant relative of Holmes who paid with money supplied by the detective) and returns to 221 B.