In early 1880 Claude
Augustus Currie planned to have the adventure of a lifetime. He
was scheduled to go on a whaling expedition as ship's surgeon. At
the last minute he couldn't go. He asked a fellow student to take
his place. That student was Arthur Conan Doyle.
Conan Doyle had just completed his third
year of medical studies when he signed on as ship's surgeon of the
Greenland whaler Hope.
The plan was to spend two months hunting
seals off the coast of Greenland and then head north to look for
whales. Whale oil was used to make soap and lubricants. The
baleen, long and bony plates in the whale's mouth, were used to make
many things including kitchen utensils and corset stays.
One of the items that Conan Doyle brought
along on the voyage was a set of boxing gloves. He had taken up
the sport in Edinburgh as an exercise. Jack Lamb, the ship's
steward, noticed the gloves as Conan Doyle was stowing his gear.
Lamb immediately challenged Conan Doyle to a boxing bout. After
the match was finished Lamb was quoted as saying, "So help me, he's
the best surgeon we've had! He's blackened my e'e!"
During the voyage Conan Doyle was rarely
called upon to use his medical skills. Instead his primary
functions proved to be breaking up fights between the other crew members
and keeping John Gray, the captain of the ship, company.
The Hope carried eight whaling
boats. Seven boats were usually used during the hunt while one was
kept as an extra or spare boat. When a whale was sighted the
whaling boats would be launched. When they were within range a
harpoon was fired at the whale. The harpoon was attached to a
long, strong coil of rope. The harpoon rarely killed the whale,
instead the animal would try to flee while towing the whaling boat
behind it. The other boats would catch up and at that point the
exhausted whale would be lanced and killed. The carcass
would then be towed back to the ship for processing.
Usually the "idlers" on a
whaler, people like Conan Doyle who had not joined the crew as sailors,
did not participate in the whale hunt. However Conan Doyle and the
rest of the idlers volunteered to man the extra boat. Conan Doyle
became so adept at whaling that the Hope's captain offered him double
pay if he would act as harpooner as well as the ship's surgeon on the
next voyage. It was a dangerous way to make a living and Conan
In fact, Conan Doyle's life was in danger
several times during the voyage. Once when he was taking part in a
seal hunt on the ice flows he accidentally stepped off of the ice and
fell into the freezing water. No one had seen him fall and he was
initially unable to pull himself out. Luckily he remembered the
seal carcass that he'd been working on before he fell. He reached
out of the water and managed to grab the seal's flipper. By using
the seal's body as leverage Conan Doyle pulled himself out of the
In another instance Conan Doyle was on
the lancing boat, the boat charged with killing the whale once it had
been harpooned, when the wounded animal brought its side fin out of the
water and poised it over the boat. The six men on the boat,
including Conan Doyle, realized that should the huge fin be
brought down on top of them their boat would be sunk. Luckily they
managed to maneuver the boat out of harm's way before they were
The Hope returned home In September of
1880. Of that time Conan Doyle would later say, "I came of
age in 80 degrees north latitude."