Nessie -- The Surgeon's Photograph -- Exposed

By David Martin and Alastair Boyd

Martin and Boyd, Herts., U.K., 1999, 100 pp., paperback.

Reviewed by Douglas Chapman

Plastic wood was long ago stuck onto a wind-up metal toy boat, the results helping to popularize an enthusiasm that has continued to the present day. Loch Ness has become a long-running tourism success largely because of the alleged monster in its waters. Web surfers can see images from Nessie-cams focused on the loch, and can attempt to spot the creature from the comforts of their own homes.

Loch Ness pictures were harder to obtain in the old days. A person had to go there. And one of these photos, an early piece of "evidence" for the existence of the entity is dubious indeed: "The Surgeon's Photograph" of 1934.

In the first chapter of this book, David Martin and Alastair Boyd introduce the cast of characters involved. Major roles were played in the unfolding drama by Marmaduke Wetherell (film director and actor), Ian Wetherell (his son), Christian Spurling (his stepson), Maurice Chambers (a friend of both Marmaduke Wetherell and the surgeon), and Robert Kenneth Wilson (the surgeon himself).

A December 7, 1975 news article in the Sunday Telegraph led to the investigation by the present authors and to eventual public knowledge of the hoax claims. In it, to Mandrake -- a.k.a. Philip Purser -- of "Sunday Morning with Mandrake," Ian Wetherell related how the fake was pulled off by his father, himself and Chambers, and how they: "...found an inlet where the tiny ripples would look like full size waves out on the loch, and with the actual scenery in the background. Then it was just a matter of winding up the sub and getting it to dive just below the surface so the neck and head drew a proper little V in the water."

The Mandrake article is reprinted in facsimile in this book. Because this article did not explicitly state that the fake in question was the "The Surgeon's Photograph," this revelation took a back seat to coverage at the time of other Nessie-related activities, as well as other news. There was a follow-up article, by O. D. Gallagher, likewise mostly ignored.

The authors note that the Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau and Maurice Burton of the Natural History Museum all possessed copies of the 1975 articles, but had not given them any apparent importance.

But Martin, once he knew of the articles, followed them up in detail. He found that Christian Spurling was still around. David Martin and his wife Jane met Spurling and his wife Joy at the latters' home in February 1991. Spurling's key comment at that meeting was: "It's not a genuine photograph. It's a load of codswallop and always has been." The popularity of the photograph was always amusing to his family, he claimed.

Boyd had been made aware of the 1975 articles in 1992, and had also done subsequent research. Boyd and Martin together visited Spurling in 1992, and recorded that interview.

The two above-mentioned interviews, a plethora of news cuttings, and newer articles provided the basis for this book. Interesting details abound. Some well-publicized Nessie footprints found as part of a Daily Mail "investigation" at the Loch in December 1933 (prior to the photo hoax) turned out to have been likely made by a stuffed hippo foot, into which a silver cigarette ashtray had been mounted at some point. The lives of the "cast," the major people concerned in the hoax, are nicely sketched, particularly Marmaduke: "Frustrating as it may seem to many, here was an extrovert, an eccentric, a likeable rogue, a master of hoaxes, a vain attention seeker." His ever-changing theories about the monster are listed, as to whether it was a hippo, giant salamander, rhino, giant tortoise or seal.

His son Ian Wetherell, interestingly, was an actor, billed theatrically as Ian Colin. In the first Quatermass television serial, The Quatermass Experiment, he portrayed a CID inspector.

Philip Purser met Ian not long after the Second World War. The latter, a raconteur, probably told Purser the Loch Ness story when something else reminded him of it. Ian Wetherell died in 1986, long before the present investigation.

But Christian Spurling was still alive, so the interviews he gave "turned the key to reveal the mechanics of the hoax." He and Ian had constructed the model, which had taken eight days to complete, because of the drying time needed.

Wilson's part in the hoax had been getting the photographs developed in Inverness, and selling the results to the Daily Mail.

The authors show how certain authors of published works about the Loch Ness monster had access to correspondence and other information that should have made them realize "The Surgeon's Photograph" was a hoax. It likely would have taken a willful ignorance, at least, to ignore what the materials meant: that the photograph that made Nessie famous was a fake.

The Loch Ness Project, as long ago as the late '70s noted that the water texture in "The Surgeon's Photo" belied the scale. (Watchers of pre-digital special effects in movies may have noticed how difficult it is to believably fake water texture in miniature, because of surface tension.)

Martin and Boyd mention that there are anatomical irregularities in the photo. They also discuss a second photograph, and they show their simulation of the first photograph, to help researchers make comparisons.

Their book is generally well researched, but there is an erring reference to a Doc Sheales (sic -- actually Shiels). Rough edges aside, the book allows Nessie researchers to devote their future researches to better projects than further examinations of a fake.

And since the best two photos of the creature have been shown to be hoaxes, they may wish to turn their attentions to other monsters.