The Serpentine Muse 32.4 Featured Article


Robert S. Katz

In STUD, Watson tells us that he was shot in the shoulder region. In SIGN, there are two mentions of a bullet wound to his leg. These comments have incited more spillage of ink than that of blood during the entire Second Afghan War. The theories devised to explain the two comments range from the ingenious to the humorous to the incredibly convoluted. The controversy has gone on since the dawn of Sherlockian criticism, and I am guilty of muddying these less than limpid waters on a few occasions. The controversy will continue for as long as Holmes and Watson remain of interest.

I won’t repeat the endlessly quoted statements and descriptions in the two stories. I won’t review the literature on the subject or analyze the theories. We’re all familiar with them, and I’d like to remain welcome by the end of this paper.

If we make the bold assumption that John Watson actually passed his basic human anatomy course in medical school, then we assume that he knew the difference between his shoulder and his lower extremity. This may be a huge leap of faith, but so much of our literature is based on suspension of disbelief that we are not risking much in doing so. But what has been overlooked in the rush to publish is not so much the simple fact that a wound occurred but what a difference that wound made.

I have suggested in print and in presentations that the shoulder wound, while potentially fatal, failed to kill Watson as the shooter was likely far off in the distance as he peeled off his shot. Nonetheless, the wound likely damaged the brachial plexus, with even a minor degree of tissue derangement, having lifelong effects on Watson’s dexterity and, hence, his ability to function as a surgeon.

What about the second wound? For those of us who labor in the field of Hippocrates, what simply happened is a lot less important than the extent of what happened and, most critically, the effects and meanings of what happened. That sounds harsh coming from a physician, but it has the virtue of practicality.

Let’s then view Watson’s leg or perhaps ankle wound from a long-term perspective. With this approach, what Watson says is a lot less important than what Watson does.

In CHAS, we are treated to the vivid scene of Holmes and Watson running from Milverton’s home after his murder. Watson tells us “together we dashed away across the huge expanse of Hampstead Heath. We had run two miles, I suppose, before Holmes at last halted and listened intently.” Eluding pursuers for that distance is a meaningful bit of exertion.

But we really get down to medically significant findings in HOUN. Watson and Sir Henry are in hot pursuit of Selden. Watson points out that “we were both swift runners and in fairly good training.” Baskerville seems to have led a strenuous life and likely was in good shape. Watson, wound and all, can keep abreast of him.

Finally, later in HOUN, comes the most vital piece of medical evidence. Watson, Lestrade, and Holmes rush after the Hound in order to save Sir Henry. “Never have I seen a man run as Holmes ran that night. I am reckoned fleet of foot, but he outpaced me as much as I outpaced the little professional.”

Yes, Watson very likely was shot, in some battle, by some projectile, in a portion of his anatomy distal to his knee. What of it? Were there, to use the jargon, long-term and meaningful sequelae?

We tend not to believe everything Watson tells us. This situation is different. On not one, not two, but three separate occasions, he remarks upon his speed as a runner. If Watson makes a self-judgment, reiterates it subsequently, and then emphasizes it by telling us he is fleet of foot, I am willing to believe that he would clock a good time.

Watson dashes two miles. He is a swift runner. He is fleet of foot.

The leg wound, even if honorably suffered in the heat of battle, had no lasting medical significance, yielded no disability, and produced no meaningful impairment. Perhaps a twinge on a rainy day but what are twinges compared to permanent limps, foot drops, or, most sadly, amputations?

In spite of all the literature, from a purely medical perspective, what can we say about this second lesion? How should we, as students of science, comment when the issue is again raised, and raised again it shall surely be. Perhaps the best response comes, not from the Canon or the Writings Upon the Writings, but from a non-Sherlockian product of the Golden Age of Hollywood. As the eminent Blockade Runner would say, “Frankly, my dear Watson, I don’t give a damn.”