The tale of John Thomas: a birthday tribute to Arthur Conan Doyle

The tale of John Thomas: a birthday tribute to Arthur Conan Doyle

In 1880, as a 21-year-old medical student, Arthur Conan Doyle was working as a ship's surgeon on a whaler in the Arctic when he adopted a sea snail as a pet. In honor of Doyle's birthday (May 22, 1859), I present what he wrote in the ship's log, which (eventually!) became the book "Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure," by Arthur Conan Doyle, edited by Jon Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower (Copyright University of Chicago Press, 2012).

"Thursday June 3d ...

"Had the bad net out tonight and towed it to see if there was any food. Brought up a most beautiful Clio or Sea Snail, a couple of inches long, looking like some weird little fairy. I have stuck him in a pickle bottle and christened him 'John Thomas.' I hope he will live, we have put some butter and pork into his house. Saw a good many narwhals knocking about, one very large one, almost snow white and quite 15 feet, ricocheted past the stern... .

"Friday June 4th

"John Thomas is in an awful passion. We left the pickle bottle far from the fire, and as there are 11 degrees of frost it froze up and John has caught cold. He is sitting in a corner with his tail in his mouth, just as a sulky baby sticks its thumb into its potato box. I have drawn John's attention to the butter & pork and he took a hurried breakfast, but seems to have business of importance down at the bottom of the bottle. He's thinking perhaps of

'Where his rude shell by the Gulf Stream lay,

There were his little Sea Snails all at play,

There their Amoeboid mother, he their sire

Butchered to make a whale's holiday."

"Saturday June 6th (5th)

"John is well and hearty. Saw a great many narwhals today, but none of what we want. (...)

"Sunday June 6th

"John was up before me and took a heavy breakfast. He is now gyrating round the top of his bottle surveying his new kingdom apparently and meditating a map. I put him in  a bucket every evening where he wanders fancy free for an hour or two. Wind is round to SW, I am glad to say, it was S SW yesterday."


There was no mention of John Thomas in the log for June 7 or 8. On the 10th, a box appears as the second paragraph:

"John Thomas

died on the 8th of June, regretted

by a large circle of acquaintances"

with the following obituary:

"He was a right thinking and high minded Clio, distinguished among his brother sea snails for his mental activity as well as for physical perfection. He never looked down upon his smaller associates because they were protozoa, while he could fairly lay claim to belong to the high family of the Echinodermata or Annulosa. He never taunted them with their want of a water vascular system, nor did he parade his own double chain of ganglia. He was a modest and unassuming blob of protoplasm, and could get through more fat pork in a day than many an animal of far higher pretensions. His parents were both swallowed by a whale in his infancy, so that what education he had was due entirely to his own industry and observation. He has gone the way of all flesh so peace be to his molecules."

Peace be to Sir Arthur's molecules as well.

Margaret Serious has a page on Facebook.


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  • A great tribute to both Sir Arthur and John Thomas--what a wonderful post!

  • In reply to Weather Girl:

    Thank you very much. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  • "It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important."

    Sherlock Holmes

    Great post.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Thank you very much. I wonder now whether Mr. Holmes's creator had John Thomas in mind when he wrote that axiom.

  • Very fun and clever post!

  • In reply to Kathy Mathews:

    Thank you! I'm so glad that you enjoyed it.

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