A Fabulous Story, My Good Watson

Posted By on January 31, 2011

From Art Cashin on the floor of The New York Stock Exchange

On this day in 1876, an already legendary medical professor at Edinburgh University began to address a new group of students.  He began his lecture with his usual demand for observation.  He pounded on his theme of the “vast importance of little distinctions” of the “endless significance of trifles.”  “Yeah, yeah!,” thought the students (or whatever the 1870’s equivalent of a cynical “yeah, yeah” was).  Sure you’re a famous surgeon and professor but what will all this minutia get us.

He called for the first patient.  Then, according to published reports, the following happened….

A man walked in and stood for a moment.  The professor walked around him slowly, twice.  Then the professor said something like – “Army…recently discharged….probably Scots Highland regiment.  (“Aye! Sir!” came the reply).  Next – you were likely a non-commissioned officer…likely in the West Indies – perhaps Barbados.”

When the patient confirmed the correctness of every guess, the class was intrigued.  When Professor Joseph Bell explained each guess they were amazed.  “The man appeared courteous and respectful but did not remove his hat.  Members of the Army do not, so he was likely recently discharged.  His gait and tone tell me he’s Scottish thus the Highland regiment and he had an air of authority suggesting he was a non-com.  And the mild elephantitis evident on his arms tell me he was stationed in Barbados where there have been recent outbreaks.”

Needless to say, the class was impressed.  One student in particular was awed.  For the next few years, he observed Bell observing things. Every day was fascinating – like the time a student knocked on Bell’s door.  Bell, without looking up, said – “What are you worried about?”  Startled….the student said, “How did you know I was worried?”  Still not looking up, Dr. Bell said – “You knocked four times.  The timid knock once.  Most men knock either two or three times.  The worried, knock four times.”  Time and again the awe-struck student watched Dr. Bell make amazing deductions from simple observations.  He vowed he would never forget Dr. Bell – and he never did – and he made sure none us would either.

After graduation, the student hung out his medical shingle.  Unfortunately, there was an outbreak of health at the time.  To avoid starving, the student turned to writing.  He needed a new kind of character, so he chose a detective….an incredibly observant detective….someone like Dr. Bell.  And…..for a sidekick he gave him a curious but not so observant doctor….somewhat like himself.  Thus, the author, Arthur Conan Doyle, portrayed himself as Dr. Watson, standing in the shadow of his hero – the great Dr. Bell – whom he renamed – Sherlock Holmes.

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