By Susan Z. Diamond; ASH, BSI



Undoubtedly the most controversial topic associated with Watson is that of his personal relationships with women. Noted Sherlockian authorities have credited him with from one to five wives in an effort to reconcile discrepancies in the Watsonian chronology, although Dorothy L. Sayers decried the attempt to “provide Watson with as many wives as Henry VIII.” (Dorothy L. Sayers, Unpopular Opinions. London: Victor Gollancz, Ltd., 1946) Likewise, Watson’s “sad bereavement” that Holmes alludes to in EMPT has been variously interpreted as one or more of the following: Mary Morstan’s death, the death of their child, and Mary Morstan’s insanity.

I propose a totally different solution to the confusion about Watson’s personal life — a solution which
 resolves all of these difficulties, yet could not be


discussed openly in the Victorian era. Even today, it is a somewhat sensitive topic. You see, Dr. Watson was impotent or to use the phrase preferred by Bob Dole — he suffered from ED — erectile dysfunction.

Admittedly the cause of Watson’s problem is shrouded in mystery. Perhaps in passing from the leg to the shoulder, that Jezail bullet hit an even more sensitive portion of the doctor’s anatomy. Or perhaps while experiencing women in three continents, the doctor received a lasting memento from one of them. I personally feel the latter is the reason since in SIGN, Watson refers rather ruefully to his “chequered career.”

But whatever the cause of the doctor’s ailment, its existence is clear. The textual references leave no room for doubt, although Watson, of course, was discreet in alluding to his situation.

When he first fell in love with Mary Morstan, his problem overwhelmed him. He writes, “What was I, an army surgeon with a weak leg and a weaker banking account, that I should dare to think of such things (i.e., marriage with Morstan)?”

Clearly, it was the weakness in what is sometimes referred to as “the middle leg” that worried him — why would a mere limp be an impediment to marriage? Especially since in the same case Watson tells Holmes that he can handle a “six mile trudge.” Later on, in HOUN, he speaks of a “pleasant four mile walk.” Watson is certainly not an invalid in the traditional sense of the word, although he cannot rise to every occasion. It was not Watson’s fear of Morstan’s being an heiress that initially restrained his impulse to propose. It was his realization that he could not provide her with a normal sexual relationship or children. Listen to his own words: “She little guessed the struggle within my breast, or the effort of self-restraint which held me back... Yet there were two thoughts which sealed the words of affection on my lips.”

Ostensibly those two thoughts were her being “weak and helpless” and an heiress. Yet, there is nothing weak about Mary Morstan. Even Holmes speaks positively about her strength and resourcefulness. Watson could not express his real misgivings on the printed page — he could only hint at the problem and mention his depressed state of mind.

At some point, he must have discussed his disability with Mary and she reassured him — possibly during the visit to Camberwell that lasted until the evening. Thus, when the treasure is lost, the last barrier is gone and he proposes. Watson never wrote truer words than when he said, “ Whoever had lost a treasure, I knew that night that I had gained one.” Mary Morstan realized the doctor’s true worth and made her decision accordingly.

Holmes had, of course, deduced Watson’s problem. In fact, one reason he encouraged the doctor to join him on cases was to prevent Watson from lounging about Baker Street, drinking and brooding about his injury. However, Holmes understandably has misgivings about the wisdom of Watson’s marrying. Hence, his loud groan when Watson announces his marriage, and the comment “I really cannot congratulate you.” Since he then goes on to praise Mary Morstan, it is clear that he fears that Watson’s disability will make the marriage an unhappy one.