Phantom evidence - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the science of spirits

Phantom evidence - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the science of spirits

  • Photograph of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
    Photograph of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle addressed the John Ray Society in the Michaelmas Term of 1926, he had science on his mind. The science of spirits. Dr Michael Hurley explains what happened next.

Sherlock Holmes was a Cambridge man. Apparently, he read Natural Sciences. The stories that record his adventures don’t state this directly, but readers have made their own deductions. There are clues. Not enough to make a definitive case, perhaps; but quite enough for fans to enjoy a field day of speculation. Some have even gone so far as to identify his particular College (Sidney Sussex, according to Dorothy L Sayers).

Holmes’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was not a Cambridge man. Nor was he a scientist. But on 1 November 1926, he travelled to Cambridge to lecture scientists, at St Catharine’s John Ray Society. The whole event must seem thoroughly bizarre to us today. Although Conan Doyle was not without scientific training – he had studied medicine at Edinburgh and had practised as a doctor for a short time too – by the date of his visit to Cambridge, he had long since given up medicine. His international reputation rested not on science, but on his achievements as a teller of tales, as a writer of fantasy and fiction.

Conan Doyle addresses the John Ray Society

How, then, had he come to be invited to speak to the John Ray Society? It would, on the face of it, have made more sense for him to address the College’s literary sodality, the Shirley Society. Had there simply been a mistake? G K Chesterton’s advice to aspiring journalists was “to write an article for the Sporting Times and one for the Church Times and put them in the wrong envelopes”, because: “What is really the matter with almost every paper, is that it is much too full of things suitable to the paper.” It is tempting to imagine that the Presidents of the John Ray and Shirley Societies had jointly arrived at a similar conclusion. I like to imagine a scene where, heady with mischief after some formal hall, the appointed representatives of these Societies decided to switch the invitations for their respective speakers between them, deliberately putting them into the wrong envelopes. But no, when Conan Doyle pitched up at the John Ray Society, he was certainly expected. Indeed, his arrival must have been hotly anticipated, for it swelled attendance at the Society far beyond anything seen since its foundation two years earlier. ‘The Economic Importance of Nitrogen and Methods Employed in its Fixation’, ‘Ancient Methods of Surgery’, ‘The Tabacco Habit’, ‘Arctic Exploration’, ‘Notes vs. Noises’, ‘X–Rays’, ‘Beer’, ‘Bricks’, ‘Ticks’: these talks, among many others, drew healthy crowds in the 1920s, typically of around 20 or 30 people. A few meetings saw higher numbers, such as Dr FAE Crew’s lecture on ‘Sex Determination’, for which (according to the Society’s minute book) “about 70 were packed into the room”. But Conan Doyle’s visit was so popular that it couldn’t even be held in the normal venue, the JCR. Instead, with “about 230 members and friends” clamouring for a seat that day, the Society had to convene in the College Hall.

It is no surprise that people thronged to hear Conan Doyle; he was by that time a major celebrity. But the topic of his talk compounds, rather than clarifies, the mystery of why he had been invited to speak in the first place. He did not talk about literature – there had been no mix up of envelopes – but the subject of the talk he gave nonetheless seems closer to science fiction than to science. His topic was ‘Spiritualism’, and he began with “a brief description of ectoplasm”, which he presented as the material basis for all psychic phenomena. Explaining how ectoplasm is exuded from the bodies of mediums and later reabsorbed into them, he showed a number of slides illustrating the mucilaginous substance in all its manifestations, “from beautiful women to mere vaporous masses”. For good measure, he also threw in some spirit photographs.

Conversion to Spiritualism

I have long been interested in Conan Doyle, and especially in how the creator of a paragon of logical deduction could, in the later part of his life, come to champion supernatural phenomenon, even advocating the existence of fairies at the end of the garden. It is all the more curious when one considers that Conan Doyle’s great friend, and the world’s greatest magician, Harry Houdini, spent the later part of his life doing precisely the opposite – exposing mediums – which he was better placed to do than most people, because of his knowledge of conjuring (he published a wonderful book on the subject called Miracle Mongers and their Methods).

Conan Doyle’s life leading up to his conversion to Spiritualism hints at how he came to hold his improbable beliefs. Before he was a professed Spiritualist, he was a professed Materialist; and before that, he was a Catholic. There is a chain of connection between these apparently incompatible positions. Schooled by Jesuits at Stonyhurst College, he came to think that religion and science were at odds with each other. That was by no means the teaching of the Jesuits, but the fierce pedagogical style of the corps d’elite of the Roman Catholic Church appears to have driven him to reject religion entirely. Not in the sense that he lapsed into apathy or agnosticism. Indifference and indecision were not in his nature; rather, the pendulum swung full course, and he put his faith in what he took to be the rival authority of knowledge offered by science. “When I finished my medical education in 1882,” he recalled, “I found myself, like many young medical men, a convinced Materialist. We were under the influence of men like Professor Huxley, Herbert Spencer, Darwin…”

Many years later, he recanted once more. Conan Doyle’s experiences at Stonyhurst no doubt left an indelible mark on his imagination. (I should know, I was a schoolboy there myself). But while Holmes fans have noted that, for instance, Baskerville Hall was modelled on the buildings at Stonyhurst, and that Conan Doyle named Holmes’s nemesis, Moriarty, after a fellow pupil, it may be that his schooling affected him also in rather more elusive ways. Specifically, it may be that his Catholicism stayed with him just enough to draw him back, at the last, from a lifetime of Materialism – by the proverbial “twitch upon the thread”.

In the final paragraph of an article he wrote for Strand Magazine in 1921, he nicely summarises what he came to regard as the impoverished purview of late- 19th century science. The article is on ‘The Evidence for Fairies’, which seems absurd from the outset. But his coda note usefully suggests why he might wish to even entertain such apparent silliness. “Victorian science would have left the world hard and clean and bare, like a landscape on the moon,” he writes, “but this science is in truth but a little light in the darkness, and outside that limited circle of definite knowledge we see the loom and shadow of gigantic and fantastic possibilities around us, throwing themselves continually across our consciousness in such ways that it is difficult to ignore them.”

Having first rejected religion in favour of science, then, he would ultimately return to believe that there are indeed more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in positivist philosophy. But he had not, in his own view, come full circle. He figured his enlightenment instead as a fusing of religion with Materialism. Spiritualism was, he claimed, a “science of religion”; it forsakes mystical rituals, and trades instead in material stuff. The very trappings that, to us, most obviously discredit Spiritualism – the goo from ghosts, the overexposed photographs, the tenebrous noises erupting in séances – were the very things Conan Doyle used to authenticate its truth: “We are a Materialist generation,” he explained in another lecture on Spiritualism, “and the great force beyond appeals to us through material things.”

Cambridge’s reaction

So what did Cambridge make of Conan Doyle’s expatiations on spirits and séances? Did his lecture bring the John Ray Society into disrepute, by making a mockery of rigorous proof and rationality? It is hard to imagine Sherlock Holmes standing for it. “The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply” was how he dispatched the suggestion of supernatural causes in The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire. Holmes is not merely dismissive of the supernatural on this particular occasion; he rejects the idea of supernatural powers in general, and on principle. “I take it, in the first place, that neither of us is prepared to admit diabolical intrusions into the affairs of men,” he corrals Watson in The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot. “Let us begin by ruling that entirely out of our minds.”

But the reaction of the Society’s President was quite different: far from expressing impatient, a priori objections, he welcomed Conan Doyle’s address as “a great honour”. Was Conan Doyle merely being humoured by his hosts, or indeed being offered up as the unwitting object of humour? The minute book gives an inkling of how his talk was received: “All must have been convinced of the lecturer’s sincerity if not of the truth of his theories.” Although it strains towards politeness, that sentence also risks tipping into sarcasm. Sincerity is set against, rather than beside, truth. That all must have been convinced of Conan Doyle’s sincerity seems to imply that none could have been by the truth of what he actually had to say. Sincerity becomes a euphemism for ‘deluded’.

The minute book also records that, “His lecture lasted over an hour and a half and never once did his audience lose interest”. But even that sentiment shies from full-throated praise, since it is, of course, perfectly possible to be gripped by the spectacle of a lecture without concluding that its argument is, in the end, coherent or credible.

Reimagining scientific disciplinary boundaries

That Conan Doyle’s sortie into Spiritualism did not turn the heads of Cambridge’s bright young things is perhaps reassuring. But his visit suggests something more interesting about the academic climate of Cambridge in the 1920s than that its urbane undergraduates could not be gulled by tales of tablerapping and ectoplasmic excretions.

However unconvincing his ‘material’ proofs of Spiritualism might seem, he did at least come bearing proofs. Which makes much more sense of why scientists should choose to give his views an airing. Conan Doyle’s conversion to Spiritualism came at a time, moreover, when science was also reimagining its own disciplinary boundaries. The year of his graduation from medical school, 1882, was also the same year in which The Society for Psychical Research was founded. And by the early 20th century, science had, through its own advances, taken significant strides in challenging a straightforwardly material view of the world.

Conan Doyle would not have been invited to talk to Cambridge scientists about spirits a few decades earlier; nor could he have been a few decades later. His visit pinpoints an extraordinary moment in the University’s intellectual history, in which it opened itself up to the occult. Far from demeaning Cambridge science by his visit to St Catharine’s, the occasion of his lecture suggests the admirable, and indeed emulable, open–mindedness of a culture of enquiry at Cambridge that was confident enough, as well as sceptical enough, to venture beyond its “limited circle of definite knowledge”.

Dr Michael Hurley is Lecturer in English and Fellow of St Catharine’s.

This article first appeared in CAM - the Cambridge Alumni Magazine, edition 75Find out how to receive CAM.