Arthur Conan Doyle and the mystery of the medical student’s Arctic adventure
Sherlock Holmes author’s journal of his runaway year away as a ship’s doctor on a whaler aged 22 to be published
On Sunday 4 April 1880, a young medical student called Arthur Conan Doyle was wrestling with a two-iceberg rather than a two-pipe problem: he had yet again fallen overboard from a whaler called the Hope, into the icy Arctic. “I fell into the Arctic Ocean three times today, but luckily someone was always near to pull me out,” the 20-year-old Doyle wrote. “The danger in falling in is that with a heavy swell on as there is now, you may be cut in two pretty well by two pieces of ice coming together and nipping you. I got several drags, but was laid up in the evening as all my clothes were in the engine room drying … after skinning a seal today I walked away with the two hind flippers in my hand, leaving my mittens on the ice.”
Doyle’s illustrated journal, a rip-roaring account of his adventures as ship’s doctor on the Arctic whaler Hope – for which he ran away for most of a year from his medical studies in Edinburgh – is to be published for the first time by the British Library, in a facsimile edition.
Although Doyle had already published his first short story, Sherlock Holmes would not sweep in through the fog for another seven years. But the experiences of the voyage, including the brutal slaughter of the seals, would give him material for life. He described the young seals as making a noise “between the mew of a cat and the bleat of a lamb”, and on 3 April 1880 wrote: “It is bloody work dashing out the poor little beggars brains while they look up with their big dark eyes into your face. We picked the boats up soon and started packing, that’s to say all hands getting over the ship’s side and jumping along from floating piece to piece, killing all they can see, while the ship steams after and picks up the skins … I was ambitious to start but in getting over the ship’s side I fell in between two pieces of ice and was hauled out by a boathook.” Most of his medical work onboard was patching sailors up after falls, but some of it was traumatic. The oldest member of the crew died in his arms, of peritonitis not helped by a last meal of plum duff. “Poor old man. They were very kind to him forwards during his illness, and certainly I did my best for him. Made a list of his effects in the evening. Rather a picturesque scene with the corpse and the lanterns and the wild faces around.”
On 22 May it was Doyle’s 21st birthday, though there was no cake. “I come of age today. Rather a funny sort of place to do it in, only 100 miles or so from the North Pole. Had rather a doleful evening on my birthday, as I was very seedy for some reason or another. The Captain was very kind and made me bolt two enormous mustard emetics which made me feel as if I had swallowed Mount Vesuvius, but did me a lot of good.”