Toward the end of The Poison Belt, The Lost World’s sequel, Challenger derides his constant nay-sayer Professor Summerlee as “an unimaginative obstructionist,” but he was being unfair. All scientific inquiry needs a Summerlee, the sceptic whose first reaction is to question any novel proposal.
The idea of the planets travelling through a sea of “ether” — initially undetectable — was a hotly debated idea when The Poison Belt was written, and Summerlee’s view was closer to the standard orthodoxy. (Not that matters are any better now when cosmologists assure us that 68 per cent of the universe is dark energy and 27 per cent dark matter, neither detectable by normal means.) Similarly, Summerlee’s deriding of Challenger’s idea of a “lost world,” home to prehistoric creatures, represented the scientific consensus.
From the start, Arthur Conan Doyle realized that the Challenger tales needed Summerlee in a strictly narrative sense as well. He is the yin to Challenger’s yang. Or to be more scientific, if Challenger is the acid, then Summerlee is the base which neutralizes the acid, usually accompanied by much frothing.
While Challenger is huge, larger than life, by contrast Summerlee is introduced in The Lost World as “a thin, tall, bitter man with the withered aspect of a theologian.” But although 66 years old at the time,he immediately volunteers for an expedition which would daunt a much younger man. We are told that he is “careless about his attire, unclean in his person, exceedingly absent-minded in his habits and addicted to smoking a short briar pipe, which is seldom out of his mouth.” His thin, goat-like beard is often mentioned — like a dyspeptic goat —and serves as a punctuation point in his arguments. (While Summerlee appeared that way in Conan Doyle’s mock-up photograph of himself as Challenger with the other characters, in The Lost World’s first edition, he lacked a beard in both the original silent movie and the first color/sound movie in 1960. It was not restored until the 1999 television series.)
As an academic, a Professor of Comparative Anatomy and Fellow of the Royal Society, Summerlee is a master of the Common Room put-down. “I would have thought that even a limited knowledge of comparative anatomy would have helped to verify it,” he snarks during an argument with Challenger. Later, explaining his desire to return to London because his university class is being taught by an inefficient substitute, he adds: “This makes my situation different from you, Professor Challenger, since, so far as I know, you have never been entrusted with any responsible educational work.”
In the 1925 movie of The Lost World Summerlee was played by Arthur Hoyt who, although a prolific character actor, stood only 5 feet 6 inches and appeared somewhat ineffectual beside Lewis Stone (Lord Roxton) and Wallace Beery (Challenger), who both loomed above him. However, in both The Lost World and The Poison Belt, Summerlee is insensible to fatigue, and turns out to be infused with “a sort of surly courage which would never admit defeat” even when dropping from exhaustion.
Like any good scientist, Summerlee is aware of his own shortcomings. “I am willing to admit that my turn of mind is critical rather than constructive, and that I am not a ready convert to any new theory, especially when it happens to be so unusual and fantastic as this one,” he says, speaking of the apparently fatal poisonous cloud about to envelop him. Later, as death seems certain, he remarks that he would have liked another year of life to finish his classification of the chalk fossils — a scientific cataloguer to the last.
Summerlee appears — sort of — in the third Challenger adventure, 1926’s The Land of Mist, when Mrs. Debbs, well-known clairvoyant of Liverpool, astonishes Ned Malone with a message from a man with one large and one small mole over his right eyebrow — apparently Summerlee, who’d died since The Poison Belt in 1913: “Greetings to old . . . a long name that begins with C.”
Peter Calamai, a long-time science writer, squeaked through university with a Bachelor’s degree in physics, but got a much more thorough education in journalism on the student newspaper, and then spent 45 years writing for daily newspapers in Canada and abroad. In 2014 he was invested in the Order of Canada for his advocacy for adult literacy and his science journalism. He is a Master Bootmaker of The Bootmakers of Toronto, Canada’s leading Sherlockian society, and also “The Leeds Mercury” in the Baker Street Irregulars.