A Period Piece

In addition to the very well-known stories about Sherlock Holmes, and all sorts of other stories about soldiers, pirates, pugilists and ghosts, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote stories about doctors and medicine. This last was his profession, after all, at least until literary success released him from the struggle to earn his living as an oculist in Harley Street. Perhaps because he had this background of personal knowledge and experience, his medical stories often have more realistic plots, and engage with more serious contemporary or perennial problems, than the others do. In fact when these stories were first collected, in a volume entitled Round the Red Lamp (1894), Doyle wrote a preface warning his readers that the contents dealt with the graver side of life” red lamp and might be “bitter to the taste”.

Number eight of the fifteen stories in Round the Red Lamp was ‘A Physiologist’s Wife’, which had first appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1890. As its title suggests, the focus of the story is upon the domestic scene, but that scene is strictly conditioned by the professional character of the man in question, Professor Ainslie Grey. Here, in fact, is a careful portrait of what was then still a relatively new figure in the history of medicine, the full-time experimental scientist. We see him only briefly in his laboratory, but already in the story’s second sentence we are told all we need to know about what must be happening there. Either side of the clock on the mantel-piece of the dining room, there are busts of his mentors: John Hunter, the eighteenth-century surgeon and pioneer of experimental research in medicine; and, more significantly, Claude Bernard, the nineteenth-century champion of the use of animals in such research. In real life at this same time, a bust of Bernard supervised the study of Bernard medalOxford University’s first professor of Physiology, John Scott Burdon Sanderson, whom one Oxford newspaper called “the high priest of vivisection”.

Similarly expressive are the three academic institutions which Doyle tells us have been the scenes of Grey’s training and early practice hitherto. First of them is Edinburgh, which at about the time when Grey is imagined to have been there (and when Doyle himself was there in reality) had caused a public outcry by advertising for dogs and cats in the Scotsman newspaper (the British Medical Journal urged that “the doings within the walls of the Edinburgh University Physiology Laboratory” should be “kept publicly quiet” in future). Then followed Cambridge, professional scene of Michael Foster, one of the three or four founding British physiologists, co-editor with Burdon Sanderson of the notorious Handbook for the Physiological Laboratory (1873), and author of A Textbook of Physiology (1876: sample from p.262: “Newly born and young animals need much longer immersion in water before death by asphyxia occurs than do adults”). Finally Vienna, a continental centre for vivisection under Professor Stricker, whose one-time assistant Emanuel Klein it was who electrified the Royal Commissioners of 1875-6 with his dogmatic indifference to animal welfare (question 3539: ‘do you mean that you have no regard at all to the sufferings of the animals?’ – ‘No regard at all.’)

In short, Ainslie Grey belongs to that new branch of the medical profession whose members, as one of the Commissioners said, “devote the whole of their time to the study of the laws of life upon animals.” More, he represents it, for his own profession is said to regard him as “the very type and embodiment of all that was best in modern science”. But we’re now to find this paragon of the laboratory briskly turning his attention to the domestic life, and more or less willingly yielding himself, as he says, to “the great evolutionary instinct which makes either sex the complement of the other”.

Natural enough, but for contemporary readers at least this wooing would have had some sinister associations. At that time, the medical profession as a whole was strictly masculine. No woman might belong to the BMA (though one, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, had got in before a ban could be formalized). To Professor Grey, as to Burdon Sanderson himself, such a prohibition seemed soundly based: “It is a question of avoirdupois … The female cerebrum averages two ounces less in weight than the male.” And there was the character weakness too: “It is because women by virtue of their organization are more liable than men to be handicapped by emotion that they will always fail in the race.” [first speaker Professor Grey, second one Professor Burdon Sanderson] In the particular case of the physiologist, this general background of assured superiority and command seems to have taken on a more ominous character, at any rate in some popular representations of his work and character. The moral domination of the woman, and the physical intrusion into the helpless animal, were assimilated or confused, so that vivisection became associated with sexual violence and perversion. It was an idea somewhat encouraged by the unappealing but current image of nature itself as a woman subject to the researcher’s curiosity: “It has been said,” Bernard himself observed, “that the experimenter must force nature to unveil herself, and indeed he does …”

Among the fictions of the period which worked on this idea of the research animal as symbolic of the woman, or exchangeable with her, were Leonard Graham’s novel The Professor’s Wife (1881), the 1883 novel Heart and Science, discussed elsewhere in this blog, and The Beth Book, Sarah Grand’s novel of 1897, in which, again, the heroine marries a vivisector. Later it strayed into pornography, and it can be found also in rumours that Jack the Ripper’s 1880s murders were the work of a deranged vivisector. Doyle’s story treats such implications very obliquely, perhaps even involuntarily, but in his readers the very title he chose would probably have caused an uncomfortable frisson.

And certainly, when the professor visits the young widow Mrs O’James, whom he proposes to marry, there’s a disturbing contrast between his own personality and manner – “cold and impassive” – and hers, characterised by suggestions of vitality: “quick”, “sensitive”, “wilful”, “strongly feminine”. These suggestions are interpreted by Ainslie Grey with dismal professionalism. When Mrs O’James accepts his proposal of marriage “with a sharp, quick gesture which had in it something of abandon and recklessness”, she can’t help showing her inward stresses in her face: noticing these signs, Grey observes “Your nerves are shaken. Some little congestion of the medulla and pons.” Teasing the man, she calls this reductivism “dreadfully unromantic”, to which Grey solemnly answers, “Romance is the offspring of imagination and of ignorance.”

The professor soon discovers that Mrs O’James has been reading “Hale’s Matter and Life”. It’s a book title which (as far as I can find) Doyle made up for the occasion, rather in the way he used to enjoy referring to unwritten Sherlock Holmes adventures (“the Conk-Singleton forgery case”, “the dreadful business of the Abernetty family”, etc.). But we can supply the philosophy of the book from its title. Making a dualism of the world, it must be imagined putting the case for some variety of ‘vitalism’, the idea that there is a property peculiar to living things which will never be explained in the material terms of physics and chemistry. The professor shies at this insight into Mrs O’James’s thinking: “a feeble reasoner … I should not recommend you to found your conclusions upon ‘Hale’.” Not that Doyle himself, or many other science-trained minds of his time, would have subscribed to vitalism either. The book is really there to ask the more general question: is life a special category, requiring more than reason and observation to know it and to assess its value?

Doyle’s narrative seems to urge that it is. For although this unhappily ill-matched pair do indeed marry, it turns out that the physiologist nevertheless has no wife (I shall not explain why, though the plot is familiar from the Sherlock Holmes canon). It’s a shocking discovery whose cruelty to himself the professor characteristically (and at his best here) refuses to acknowledge, though we’re told that he “had found out at last how hard it is to rise above one’s humanity.” In fact he cannot do so, and the blow gradually kills him. The two doctors who have to certify Grey’s death feel “some slight embarrassment” at identifying its cause. Confident that it’s “what the vulgar would call a broken heart”, they daren’t offend Grey’s memory with such a suggestion. They therefore leave the Hale question unresolved: “Let us call it cardiac, anyhow.”

Compared to the Wilkie Collins novel, Heart and Science, ‘A Physiologist’s Wife’ is a plain, unmelodramatic account of the vivisector and his implications for modern culture (though the discovery which wrecks the marriage makes for a sensational turning-point). More to the point, Doyle does not set out to censure vivisection itself, as Collins had done. True, he had been dismayed by the practices of his own professor of Physiology at Edinburgh, William Rutherford: “He was, I fear, a rather ruthless vivisector … I am glad that the law was made more stringent so as to restrain such men as he.” Anyone who has read Doyle’s fictions about the impatient and furiously aggressive Professor Challenger, a character based on Rutherford, will be able to imagine that ruthlessness all too well, nor are we likely to be much impressed by Rutherford’s own claim to be “extremely sensitive” to the sufferings of animals. (He made that claim in a characteristically aggressive letter to the press, and backed it in the same spirit with an evident readiness to go to law against his detractors in the matter). However, as his comment on Rutherford suggests, Doyle did not oppose vivisection in principle. He had even vigorously defended it in public debate only a few years before he wrote ‘A Physiologist’s Wife’. What then to make of the story?

Certainly it’s a cautionary tale. The ‘other man’ in the story is also a scientist, in fact another physiologist (Grey’s former prize student), but one in whom the professional mind has not taken the whole man prisoner. This is a man of quick sympathy and impulsive emotion. As he admits in conversation with Ainslie Grey, “Either my brain is too small or my heart is too big.” And the story endorses his humanity, rewarding him with the woman of whom it has deprived the other man. The lesson might thus far be applied to any person subject to the temptations of ‘scientism’, an overgrowth of confidence in the scientific method and corresponding disparagement of the kinds of truth and value which science cannot deal with or authenticate. In fact it’s one of the merits imputed to the scientist-subject of John Betjeman’s touching obituary poem ‘In Memoriam Walter Ramsden’, where he speaks of  “That old head so full of knowledge, that good heart that kept the brains / All right.”

But Arthur Conan Doyle’s story goes further than that, whether he meant it to or not. After all, it’s specifically as a physiologist that Ainslie Grey attempts “to rise above one’s humanity”, with those European centres of animal research behind him, and Claude Bernard’s image on his mantel-piece. Bernard himself had famously described, in his introduction to the subject of experimental physiology, his ideal worker in the physiological laboratory: “A physiologist is not an ordinary man, he is a savant, a man fascinated by the scientific idea which he pursues: he no longer hears the cry of animals, he no longer sees the blood that is shed, he sees only his idea and perceives only organisms hiding from him the secrets which he intends to uncover.” For Bernard, the “no longer” means that the man of science has gone beyond the lay sensibilities of the ordinary contemporary man, risen above them indeed: in just that respect is he “modern” in his work, as Professor Grey is noted for being. Doyle shows that it is rather a case of leaving behind something essential to the complete human: how essential, Ainslie Grey, or at least his doctors, have to discover. But in a man both modern and representative, the loss must have much more than personal or momentary implications.

So this is indeed a period piece, a study of a man peculiarly of his time. Unfortunately the moral flaw or misconstruction that defeats him personally is one that he and his kind bequeathed to succeeding generations of their fellow-professionals.

 

Notes and references:

The “high priest” sobriquet comes in the Oxford University Herald, 27 October 1883. The British Medical Journal comment is quoted in R.D.French, Antivivisection and Medical Science in Victorian Society, Princeton University Press, 1975, p.47.

The question to Emanuel Klein was put by the Chair of the Royal Commission, Lord Cardwell, and appears in Report of the Royal Commission on the practice of subjecting live animals to experiments for scientific purposes, 1876, p.183. The second quotation from one of the commissioners is from p.107.

Burdon Sanderson’s observation about women comes in the Memoir edited by Lady Burdon Sanderson, Oxford, 1911, p.157. I know that the paragraph about the relation between research animals and the Victorian woman is a very perfunctory summary of a complex subject. It’s treated at adequate length (among other places) in Coral Lansbury’s The Old Brown Dog: Women, Workers, and Vivisection in Edwardian England, University of Wisconsin Press, 1985, and also by Mary Ann Elston in ‘Women and Anti-Vivisection in Victorian England, 1870-1900’, which is chapter 11 of Nicolaas A. Rupke, Vivisection in Historical Perspective, Croom Helm, 1987.

Doyle’s observations on Rutherford as vivisector are quoted in Rodin and Key, Medical Casebook of Dr Arthur Conan Doyle, Florida, 1984, p.70, having appeared originally in Doyle’s autobiography Memories and Adventures (1924). The debate about vivisection in which Doyle took part is mentioned in Rodin and Key, p.46.

Claude Bernard quotations are from his Introduction à l’étude de la médecine expérimentale (Paris, 1965), pp.99 and 29, as accessed online at http://classiques.uqac.ca/classiques/bernard_claude/intro_etude_medecine_exp/intro_medecine_exper.pdf (translation by the writer of this post).

The illustrations show a modern edition of Round the Red Lamp, published by Valancourt Books in 2007, and a 1913 plaque of Claude Bernard (image from the digital collection of Tulane University Library).

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