Arthur Conan-Doyle on Mesozoic reptiles

No, not as you’d imagine, The Lost World but another mention. While Conan-Doyle rightly gets a lot of praise for really helping to excite the public with tales of live dinosaurs (and pterosaurs and the rest) and is commemorated with his own pterosaur (Arthudactylus conandoylei if you were wondering) it’s not the only time they get a mention in his works. I suspect it’s largely unknown, but Conan-Doyle wrote several more stories based around Ed Malone and Professor Challenger, and generally featuring Lord Roxton and Professor Summerlee from The Lost World too.

One of these is a short story of just a dozen pages entitled The Disintegration Machine. It’s a real favourite of mine and when I stumbled across the compendium of Challenger-based stories the other day I reread it. Lurking just a couple of pages in is this little statement from the Professor:

“It was in the course of your somewhat fatuous remarks concerning the recent Saurian remains discovered in the Solenhofen [sic] slates.”

The story was first published in 1929 and Conan-Doyle was a doctor by training and clearly had more than a passing familiarity to the sciences and anatomy. He tended to write about the contemporary world so it’s not unreasonable to suppose he was discussing some relatively recent development or discovery. While obviously the term ‘saurian’ is more than a little general, it does at least rule out quite a lot. A quick search shows that there was no obviously monumental discovery in the 1920s (things like Archaeopteryx, Compsognathus and Pterodactylus having been unearthed long before). I’m not expert enough to delve through the literature of the crocodylomorphs or more basal reptiles from the Solnhofen, though intriguingly Anurognathus was described in the 1920s and Germanodactylus cristatus was erected to generic status just a set years before the story came out.

OK, so it’s a bit of a longshot that we can even vaguely identify a taxon or specimen that Conan-Doyle was thinking of (assuming of course he even did have something specific in mind). Still, it is clear he did know that this was a place famous for its reptilian remains and presumably thought the general public would know it and recognise the name check. If nothing else it’s simply nice to think that he didn’t just dabble in dinosaurs for his one classic, but kept these animals in mind and perhaps even kept up with the science enough to use them again another time.

5 Responses to “Arthur Conan-Doyle on Mesozoic reptiles”

  1. 1 Mark Witton 03/03/2012 at 12:39 pm

    Swooping bit of pedantry: Germanodactylus, the genus, was erected by CC Young in 1964 to accomodate Pterodactylus kochi, which he considered as being closer to Dsungaripterus than Pterodactylus. He probably meant ‘P. cristatus’, as he specifically mentions Pleininger’s 1901 monograph on the kochi specimen that would form the holotype of cristatus later on. I think your text actually refers to the erection of the species ‘P. cristatus’, which was erected by Carl Wiman in 1925.

    • 2 David Hone 03/03/2012 at 4:05 pm

      Yes that’s what I meant. Agh, I had originally written ‘the specimen that became known as G. cristatus’ and for some reason changed it. Ah well. Thanks for the correction Mark.

  2. 3 Kniffler 04/03/2012 at 12:55 pm

    Sad to say, I think it’s unlikely ACD had a specific discovery in mind. Most of the jargon that Challenger uses throughout the series is there only to persuade the casual reader that he’s a knowledgeable scientist. As in most of the discussions with Summerlee in The Lost World, the whole Weissmanism bit, etc. It’s mostly accurate, so the informed reader wouldn’t be treated to howling mistakes, but there’s not really any indication that ACD’s background research was very in-depth.

    Much of the palaeontological detail in TLW is from “Extinct Animals”, by E. Ray Lankester ( ), which mentions Solenhofen with respect to Archaeopteryx.

    Also, the phrase “Solenhofen slates” appears in the Lost World (near the start, during Waldron’s lecture), and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was copypasta’d from there without much thought to current events. “Saurian” keeps it nice and vague, but “sciency” enough to set the tone.

    • 4 David Hone 04/03/2012 at 1:47 pm

      “Sad to say, I think it’s unlikely ACD had a specific discovery in mind. ”

      Probably true. Though not impossible, some of these discoveries did get reasonable press for their time so he could have come across something or had something in mind. Still it’s nice to blur the lines of reality and fiction a little, something I think he generally did rather well.

  3. 5 Tom Hopp 04/03/2012 at 3:16 pm

    Aside from the specific Saurians, the whole nature of scientific discourse is a fascinating subject for non-scientist readers, and Conan Doyle was a master at portraying it. His acrimonious Challenger-Summerlee debates made science interesting to the non-scientist. I’ve used Conan Doyle’s approach with my own Ogilvey-Summerlin debates over subjects like the presence or absence of a horn on the nose of pachyrhinosaurus. The hoped-for effect is to stimulate interest among my fiction readers about the real scientific debates occurring in our times. You’re right Dave, blurring the reality-fiction line has its place in literature to the extent that it increases public interest in things archosaurian.

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