Not so mad, bad and dangerous

The dawn of the modern scientist in literature

Martin Griffiths 14 June 2009

Influences: the author knew many scientists

Conan Doyle worked hard to ensure that his Challenger character would differ from the usual portrayal of scientists in literature as evil villains or disconnected sociopaths

Lewis Wolpert’s excellent An Unkind Literature in the January 2006 issue of LabLit raised some interesting questions about the portrayal of scientists in literature. Although there is a sparse sprinkling of scientists and their methods in classical novels as Wolpert revealed, he mentions the case of Sherlock Holmes and the lack of scientific application in his work. This got me thinking about another of Conan Doyle’s great character inventions, Professor George Challenger.

Within the Challenger series of novels (The Lost World, The Poison Belt, The Land of Mist, When the World Screamed and The Disintegration Machine), Challenger is not portrayed as a mad scientist of the ilk that would be reflected by Shelley, Verne, Swift, Wells or Stevenson, but the first of a new breed; the scientist as a researcher, hero and adventurer whose goal is always knowledge rather than the oft cited “common good”. Challenger represents a tipping point between the old stereotypical version of the scientist commonly used by classical sources and the new hopeful type of researcher who puts the ethics and nobility of his profession and society before personal gain.

How did Conan Doyle invent such an interesting specimen as Professor Challenger? He was an author who frequently drew his characters from real life and his personal experiences – and herein lies the difference: very few classical authors had first-hand knowledge of the principle and methods of science. Conan Doyle was a practiced medical doctor, ophthalmologist and traveler, a man who was involved in legal cases leading to the establishment of the court of criminal appeal, an apologist for the government and a knight of the realm. He lived in an Edwardian world where the map was covered in Empire red, a world subjugated by the science and technologies from the heartland of the industrial revolution and the institutions of learning it created. With such a varied background, he was bound to cross the paths of other influential thinkers.

Friends, associates, teachers and lecturers were all utilized in some sense within his writing. Real-life experiences were constantly being salted away to be used as background material for various mystery plots. Conan Doyle was familiar with the exploits of pioneering naturalists, particularly Alfred Russell Wallace, who offered the idea of Evolution alongside Charles Darwin, and the naturalist and Amazonian explorer Henry Walter Bates, who probably became the template for the character of Professor Summerlee in The Lost World. He knew Sir Roger Casement, the British consul in Rio de Janeiro and his colleague, the freelance journalist Edmund Morel. Doyle met Colonel Percy Fawcett, the South American surveyor/explorer who eventually disappeared while searching for a lost city in the Brazilian Matto Grosso, and he knew of Sir Everard im Thurn, the first European to climb to the summit of the 'lost world' of Mt. Roraima that defines the common border of Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil. Conan Doyle was also a friend of Sir Edwin Ray Lankester, who was director of the British Museum and a scientist who had described several sensational new zoological discoveries including the okapi from Central Africa.

It is obvious that Edmund Morel, Roger Casement and Percy Fawcett provided the main inspirations for two of The Lost World other key characters; Edward Malone and Lord John Roxton. Fawcett’s jungle adventures and Lankester’s descriptions of dinosaurs from his 1905 book Extinct Animals provided the background for the lost world. It is evident that this great association of contacts would enable Conan Doyle to build a character of magnitude.

George Challenger himself possessed an amalgam of traits from teachers recalled by Conan Doyle from his university days, particularly the anatomy lecturer Professor William Rutherford, a shaggy giant of a man who would become the editor of the Journal of Anatomy and Physiology. Conan Doyle wished to reflect scientists in their element as learned men with institutional backing, making sense of the natural world around them by using their knowledge and application of the sciences. He also wanted to show them as larger than life and different from the ordinary – and few came larger than life than William Rutherford or the physician Joseph Bell, whose insight and wit were also evident in the personality of Challenger.

Conan Doyle worked hard to ensure that the character of Challenger would have the very best pedigree and differ from the usual portrayal of scientists in literature as evil villains, or disconnected sociopaths. To this end, his research, plus the background of his personal acquaintances, revealed in literature – perhaps for the first time – a scientific world that was full of optimism, application and openness, and a spirit of adventure and discovery that would enable him to produce a character that was radically different from those extant. This evocation ensured that Challenger would be a scientist with a passionate human side rather than being just, in the words of Christopher Frayling, "mad, bad and dangerous".

Challenger is portrayed as a typical scientist of the institutions the public came to recognize: well dressed, slightly aloof, contemplative, having a specialized knowledge yet open to debate and public communication within the boundaries of a society or club. Challenger reflects the science at the turn of the century, which was becoming removed from the preserve of the amateur gentleman to a professional pursuit subdivided into specialisms far removed from the layman. Conan Doyle does an admirable job of demonstrating the rise of science and scientists, a world in which its subjects felt comfortable and familiar as their experience and knowledge grew.

Throughout the novels, Challenger repeatedly has to explain terms to his less intellectual colleagues, revealing the growing divide between scientific and common knowledge, yet displaying a willingness to reveal his information and to share in the wonders around him. Challenger is occasionally in danger of stepping down into the typical stereotypical scientific image that the literary audience could identify with, yet manages also to avoid this pitfall by revealing his emotional and human side.

In the novels, Challenger is married and utterly devoted to his French wife; is a successful scientist in his field, a winner of the medal of the zoological society and foreign fellow of several learned societies; is an accomplished writer and lecturer. He works with scientific colleagues, his field trips are funded by his institution or through private means in much the same way as scientists work and bid today. His discoveries are challenged by other scientists and his methods repeated as part of scientific method. He has some eccentricities, but so do many people across all academic boundaries.

Conan Doyle’s construction of Challenger is a breakthrough in the portrayal of scientists as human creatures with some extraordinary gifts. The background of Professor Challenger in fiction and reality reveals that scientists are not characters from gothic fiction with secrets to hide, but real people with attitudes and ambitions which reveal rather than conceal their works.

This verisimilitude and application of personal knowledge and background was relatively new in literature of the time. I am stumped to think of a single scientist character in classical literature who can boast such characterization or an author who has drawn upon the real life experiences in science and society in a similar way to imbue his characters with such realism.

The only question that remains is whether we consider Conan Doyle’s works to be part of the classical canon.

Personally I do.


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