The famed surgeon Douglas Stone flaunts his notorious affair with Lady Sannox, although his professional reputation begins to suffer. One night a mysterious Turk asks him to attend his wife, who has cut her lip on a poisoned dagger. The Turk insists that amputation offers the only hope of recovery. Anxious to pocket the proffered gold, and impatient to get to his mistress, Stone dismisses his professional misgivings. He excises the lower lip of the veiled, drugged woman--only to find that he was tricked into disfiguring Lady Sannox herself. Lord Sannox (disguised as the "Turk") thus gains his revenge, with his wife morally chastised (and forever after in seclusion), and Stone’s "great brain [thenceforth] about as valuable as a cap full of porridge."


It is no wonder that one recent edition of Conan Doyle’s collection of medical short stories, Round the Red Lamp (see annotation), titled it "Tales of Medical Humanism and Values." The stories in this collection examine the rapidly-changing role of late-nineteenth-century medical professionalism. In this tale, Conan Doyle pits the reputation and intelligence of a medical man, trained in clinical discourse and behavior, against his all-too-human failings: lust, greed, even curiosity (recalling the "curious cases" of the pre-clinical era).

Stone has made his reputation as a "brilliant" surgeon from "his nerve, his judgment, " "his daring, " and "his skill, " enabled by his acceptance of clinical values (145; 148). "But familiarity with such grim matters may take the finer edge from a man’s sympathy, " muses the narrator, "This was no longer a woman to him. It was a case" (152; 156). This ability to dehumanize his patient--combined with his greed, impatience, and lust--betrays Stone into an unnecessary and brutal amputation.

This story should perhaps be called "The Case of Dr. Stone." Although the plot turns on Lady Sannox, the narrative hardly discusses her. It details instead the history and symptoms of Stone himself in his plummet from headstrong, sensualist surgeon to a gibbering idiot, and it diagnoses the ills of a clinical medicine too bent on reputation and technique and too little interested in the patient. The story’s debt to sensation fiction highlights this fall from the "nerve" of the surgeon to his nervousness, juxtaposing these medicalized concepts of nerves to the thrilled but "jaded nerves" of its readers.

The success of Lord Sannox’s deception rides upon Stone’s (and his reader’s) acceptance of Orientalist stereotypes about "The East" and its inhabitants. The "Turk" thus establishes his knowledge of mysterious poisons, explains the veil on his wife and her drugging with opium (so Stone goes through with the amputation), and excuses his pious refusal to allow chloroform (so she wakes in horror and pain at the moment of her disfigurement, and Stone sees what he has done).

This story also works well as an examination of gender, sexuality, and body image issues. The amputation of the lip functions as a surrogate castration. "If [the poison] be on the finger, take the finger off, " explains the Turk; and Stone’s use of a bistoury (specialized scalpel) suggests a "bistournage" or castration (152). Social notions of femininity drive the assumption that a fitting punishment for an adulterous woman would be to destroy her beauty and sexuality --"The mouth will not be a pleasant one to kiss [after amputation], " comments Lord Sannox as the Turk.

The success of the operation --that Lady Sannox had "taken the veil, and that the world would see her no more"--underscores cultural assumptions that people with non-normative bodies should hide them (144). But in his casual excuse for his wife’s veil ("You know our views about women in the East" [156]), the "Turk" foreshadows the ironic convergence of British and "Eastern" cultures in the veiling of Lady Sannox both before and after her defacement.


First published in The Idler, November 1893, Vol. 4, pp. 331-42; also in the Detroit Sunday News-Tribune, 29 October 1893, p. 22a-d; the Louisville Courier-Journal, 29 October 18983, p. 20a-d; the Philadelphia Inquirer, 29 October 1893, p. 21a-d; and the San Francisco Examiner, 30 October 1893, p. 15c-f. Also published in book form as Round the Red Lamp: Being Facts and Fancies of Medical Life (NY: D. Appleton, 1894

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Round the Red Lamp: Being Facts and Fancies of Medical Life



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