Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The surgeon’s photograph of the Loch Ness monster

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden

“Whatever is the truth, there is no denying that Nessie will continue to intrigue the world for years to come.”
– Johnathan Bright, Oxford Internet Institute

Grainy black and white photo of neck and head-like shape protruding out of water with semi-visible "body" behind it
The iconic “photo” of the Loch Ness Monster. Via Wikimedia. Fair use.

Loch Ness, at thirty-seven kilometers long and 230 meters deep at its deepest point, is the second largest lake in Scotland.1 Stories about a creature of great size, an unidentifiable “monster” in Loch Ness started in 565 AD and have persisted for the last 1500 years.

In 1933, a new road was built on the north shore of the loch, which gave easy access to observers. Reported sightings of “Nessie,” as the creature came to be called, increased dramatically.2 Dr. Robert Kenneth Wilson, a London surgeon, was on a hunting trip in the Scottish Highlands in 1934 with his friend Maurice Chambers. Wilson took some undeveloped photographic plates to a “chemist’s” (a pharmacy) in nearby Inverness. The developed plates showed what could have been a sea creature with a long neck (image). The chemist suggested that Wilson contact the London Daily Mail, which he did. He sold the photographs for 100 pounds to the newspaper. The better of the two photos was published and became known only as the “surgeon’s photograph,” as Wilson did not want his name associated with the photo or with the discovery.3

When Wilson became known as the photographer, he “would not try to estimate the size” of the object. In fact, he never claimed to have photographed the “monster,” only that he had photographed “an object moving in the waters of Loch Ness.”4 The photo was widely regarded as genuine, although there were skeptics.5 In the mid-1990s, after the death of Maurice Chambers, his personal papers revealed that the “surgeon’s photograph” was a hoax.

Brown putty "monster" shape on top of yellow and red toy submarine on worktable
3D recreation of the photographed “monster”. From The Museum of UnNatural Mystery. Copyright Lee Krystek, 2011.

The idea had come as a revenge from big-game hunter Marmaduke Wetherell against the London Daily Mail, which had hired him to find the monster but publicly ridiculed and humiliated him when the footprints he reported to have found turned out to have been a hoax.6 So Wetherell constructed as “monster” a toy submarine, thirty-five centimeters long, purchased at a Woolworth’s department store. Wetherell’s stepson was a sculptor, and he created a long-necked beast out of putty and placed it atop the submarine so that a head and neck protruded thirty centimeters above the surface. Wetherell and his other son took the pictures, not Wilson.7 They chose Wilson to bring in the plates for developing because they knew he liked practical jokes and because his “status as a physician might lend credibility to the story.”8

The discrediting of the surgeon’s photo has not lessened the belief among some serious scientists and convinced laymen that something unknown and undiscovered may live in Loch Ness. They point out that the coelacanth (Latimeria chalumeau, L. menadoensis) was believed extinct until a live specimen was caught in 1938; that a new species of shark, the megamouth shark (Megachasma pelagios) was discovered in 1976; and the legendary giant squid (Architeuthis dux) was first photographed in its natural habitat in 2004.


  1. Robert Kenneth Wilson. Wikipedia.
  2. Alex Bosse. “The Loch Ness monster and the surgeon’s photo,” hoaxes.org, 2002.
  3. Wilson, Wikipedia.
  4. Tim Mondham. “Nessie’s secret revealed,” The Skeptic, 14920, 2008.
  5. Wilson, Wikipedia.
  6. Lee Krystek. “The surgeon’s hoax,” The Museum of UnNatural Mystery, 1996, http://unmuseum.org/nesshoax.htm.
  7. Krystek, “The surgeon’s hoax.”
  8. Wilson, Wikipedia.

HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

Summer 2022



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