Dundee doctor may be Sherlock sidekick inspiration

Scottish doctor William Smith, who is now believed to be the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes' sidekick Dr Watson. Picture: Hemedia
Scottish doctor William Smith, who is now believed to be the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes' sidekick Dr Watson. Picture: Hemedia
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A DUNDEE osteopath who studied medicine alongside Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has become the latest candidate to be mooted as the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick Dr John Watson.

Sherlock sleuths have been trying for decades to identify the real life figure used as the basis for the famous detective’s companion.

But Tim Baker, a modern day Dundee osteopath, believes he has found the man in question - William Smith, a pioneer of British osteopathy who was a fellow student of Conan Doyle’s at Edinburgh University and corresponded with the famous novelist for at least 30 years.

Mr Baker revealed that he had first learned about the possible inspiration for the “narrator” of Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories at the annual meeting of the Scottish Osteopathic Society in Aberdeen.

Based on father ‘as a friendly gesture’

At the meeting one of the guest speakers Jason Haxton, curator of the American Museum of Osteopathy, told how William Smith had been the basis for Dr Watson. After the lecture Mr Haxton showed Mr Smith a 1938 cutting from an American newspaper, the Des Moines Sunday Register, written by Smith’s son Cuthbert Smith in 1938.

In the article, headlined “Watson’s Son Reveals Real Sherlock Holmes,” Cuthbert Smith claimed that Conan Doyle had based Dr Watson on his father, William Smith.

Cuthbert Smith wrote: “The detective’s companion Watson was my father William Smith.” According to the story, Doyle and his father were both students under Dr Joseph Bell, the legendary Scottish medical lecturer whose amazing powers of dedication are widely recognised as providing the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes.

Smith wrote: “The character of Watson was written around my father but it was merely a friendly gesture on Doyle’s part and not based on any personal merits connected with the remarkable character of the stories of Joseph.”


Cuthbert Smith also described how, as a pupil at Dollar Academy while his father was in Dundee, he had been taken by his father to meet both Bell and Conan Doyle in Edinburgh.

Mr Baker said the story had inspired him to carry out further research into the story of Smith, who left Scotland after graduating to pursue a medical career in America.

He said: “In the 1880s both Conan Doyle and Smith were at Edinburgh medical school together and Dr Bell was their teacher. I also have letters from both Bell and Doyle to Smith when Smith was working on a murder case in America.

“The letter from Doyle is dated February, 1907. And it starts off ‘My Dear Bill.’ It is obvious they remained friends for some time.”

Body snatching claims

Mr Baker added: “Smith is a very interesting character. After qualifying in medicine he went to America to start a medical practice in Boston but he wasn’t very successful. He became a travelling medical implements salesman and later taught anatomy and physiology to the first ever cohort of osteopathic students at the American School of Osteopathy.

“Smith got himself accused of body snatching at one point to get some bodies for the anatomy department and all sorts of things. But eventually he returned to Dundee in 1910 where he set up practice before getting pneumonia and dying two years later.”

Other candidates as the inspiration for Dr Watson are Dr John Watson, a Southsea doctor who was an acquaintance of Doyle, and army doctor Surgeon-Major Alexander Francis Preston, who later became King Edward VII’s honorary physician.


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