75th Year: Famous Surgeon’s Photo of Nessie

Posted by: Loren Coleman on April 20th, 2009

Taken on April 19th and first published on April 21st, 1934, the famous or infamous photograph, depending on your point of view, celebrates a milestone.

Loch Ness Monster Surgeons Photo

The famed Surgeon’s Photo of the Loch Ness Monster

In 1934, Colonel Robert Wilson, a highly respectable British surgeon, said that he noticed something moving in the water and took a picture of it. He happened to be urinating at the time, according to one version of what he shared later. The resulting image showed the slender neck of what some felt was a “sea=serpent” rising out of the Loch. The photo came to be known simply as “The Surgeon’s Photo” and for decades it was considered to be the best evidence of the Monster.

Then in 1994, when Christian Spurling, at the age of 90, told of (no, it was not a death-bed confession) his involvement in a plot, that included Wetherell and Colonel Wilson, to create the famous photo. Apparently Wetherell’s motive was revenge, since he was humiliated years earlier when the supposed monster’s footprints he found were nothing but dried hippo’s footsteps. Or that’s the tale he told.

The reality is that Christian Spurling’s media-applauded “deathbed confession” is a hoax itself. The guy was telling his fable about “the photo” (even though there are two images – #2 shown above) two years before he died.

Besides, the hidden fact that London gynecologist Robert Kenneth Wilson was at Loch Ness with his mistress has as much to do with the “secretive” nature of these photos as does any spiteful fantasies that Christian Spurling dreamed up about them.

Now, the Scotsman has a good overview of the 75th anniversary of the photograph:

IT WAS a photograph that spawned a multi-million-pound industry, bringing monster hunters from across the world flocking to Scotland.
The shot of a sinister head and elongated neck rising from the brooding waters of Loch Ness was all it took to start a global obsession with Nessie.

And 75 years since the mysterious shape was photographed, the search for the monster shows no sign of abating, with more than 1,000 people claiming to have caught a glimpse of the world’s most elusive monster – despite the picture being revealed as a fake.

The photograph, which was claimed to have been taken by a London surgeon, Robert Wilson, and known as “Surgeon’s photo”, has also helped to bring in millions of pounds in “Loch Ness Monster” tourist trade.

The picture, taken on 19 April, 1934, was published in the Daily Mail two days later and triggered a public passion for “Nessie” that lives to this day. Cary Cooper, professor of psychology and health at Lancaster University, explained why he thought “Nessie” had captured people’s imagination for so many years.

“In general, people’s lives are incredibly mundane and predictable, and from that a desire to find something “inexplicable” – monsters, spaceships or aliens, runs through us,” he said.

“Science says Nessie cannot exist, and even if she did they would have found her by now, but that only seems to fuel the flames for theories.

“The picture has been dismissed as a fake, but that has not stopped people wanting to believe that she is real – that she defies what the scientists tell us.

“If you add to people’s natural leaning for a belief in the unexplained the slick marketing machine behind the monster, then you have a mystery that will never die.”

References to a creature in Loch Ness date back to St Columba’s biography in 565, but the myth only took hold in the modern era after reports of a strange object and then a series of inexplicable photographs appeared in the press during the 1930s. While the first piece of photographic evidence of the Loch Ness Monster was a picture snapped by Hugh Gray on 12 November, 1933, the “Surgeon’s photo” of the following year remains the most memorable.

David Bremner, whose family owns the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition Experience in Drumnadrochit, as well as the 3D Loch Ness Experience in Edinburgh, said: “It’s one of the most iconic photos in Scotland, recognised all over the world. Although now is recognised as a hoax, it still shouts out “Scotland”.

“People remain fascinated by the idea of the Loch Ness Monster, and in the intervening years we have had more than 1,000 sightings from people, including priests and police chiefs. You can’t put a figure on the millions of pounds the photograph has brought in to Scotland.”

Over the years, local rumours reinforced ancient Scottish myths about water creatures called “kelpies” . In the 1930s, talk of the monster reached fever pitch and Nessie-hunting took hold after a string of sightings.

Circus impresario Bertram Mills reportedly offered £20,000 to anyone who could capture the monster for his circus.

In 1933, a newspaper hired a big-game hunter, Marmaduke Wetherell, to track down the monster and he claimed to have uncovered its footprints by the banks of the loch. However, researchers from London’s Natural History Museum declared that the tracks were fakes.

Mr Wetherell was so angry with the newspaper’s coverage of the fake tracks that he set about ensuring his revenge.

Yet it was only in 1994 that the truth finally emerged – when Christian Spurling, 90, Mr Wetherell’s stepson, confessed to his part in a plot involving both Mr Wilson and Mr Wetherell to fake the “Surgeon’s photo” using a toy submarine fitted with a sea-serpent’s head.

Darrel Patterson, of the Loch Ness Monster Exhibition Centre, said that picture remains one of their top-selling postcards.

“It’s just so iconic,” he added. Source


• LOCH Ness is 23 miles long and 1 mile wide.

• The deepest spot is about 754 feet in the basin just south west of Urquhart Castle.

• John Murray carried out the first bathymetrical survey of Loch Ness in 1901.

• The BBC’s Royal Correspondent Nicholas Witchell wrote the first edition of his book, Loch Ness Story, while living in a hut on a bend in the road just north of Urquhart Castle.

• The Official Loch Ness Exhibition opened in 1980 and the first day’s takings were £80.80.

• The centre now receives more than 300,000 visitors each year.

• In 1969 a model monster was used for the film The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes. It sank into the loch while being towed by the submarine Pisces.

• In 1982 Dr Maurice Burton proposed in an article for New Scientist magazine that supposed sightings of Nessie could actually be fermenting logs of Scots pine rising to the surface of the loch’s cold waters.


Loren Coleman About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading living cryptozoologist. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013. He returned as an infrequent contributor beginning Halloween week of 2015. Coleman is the founder in 2003, and current director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine.

9 Responses to “75th Year: Famous Surgeon’s Photo of Nessie”

  1. indyDonna responds:

    “• In 1969 a model monster was used for the film The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes.

    It sank into the loch while being towed by the submarine Pisces. ”

    Why might this not be showing up on any modern radar? What was it made of?
    Any ideas?

  2. cryptidsrus responds:

    I must say—

    I’m willing to keep an open mind but Dr. Maurice Burton’s theory of Scots Pine being the possible reason for the sightings is too WAY out there even for me.

    Fermenting Scots Pine? Really? OK. I did not know decaying pines could move their “necks” about and submerge and reemerge at will. I’d rather believe in the default “otter” theory than this. 🙂

    Just my two cents. Feel free to “set me right” if it could be right, folks. Which I doubt.

  3. pTerryH responds:

    Having looked at both pictures many times, my suspicion remains that they show a near-silhouetted waterfowl, probably one of the three species of Diver (US: Loon) native to Scotland. Consistent with the oft-deduced size of the object being “2 to 3 feet”, Divers are quite large (for British birds at any rate) – the Great Northern (Gavia immer) can be up to 40″ long, the Red-throated and Black-throated (G stellata and G arctica) can approach 30″ – and swim low in the water, sometimes with their backs nearly submerged. Although I’ve seen flat dismissals of the bird hypothesis, the reasoning was never explained.

    Why R K Wilson might have taken them is anyone’s guess – maybe he was just testing the camera. At any rate, their low quality and ambiguousness would have fitted them well for hoaxing a presumably not insignificant sum out of The Daily Mail.

    (First post after several years lurking, by the way. Love this site.)

  4. korollocke responds:

    What got me was it was a modified plastic model kit. They didn’t have plastic model kits back then, and plastic wasn’t a common consumer item then either.

  5. Rogutaan responds:

    Heaven forbid this happens, but the only way we’ll ever find out about whether Nessie is real or not is by introducing Zebra Mussels into the Loch. The water is so murky, we’ll never find anything. Zebra Mussels have made the Great Lakes in America crystal clear. Unfortunately they propagate pretty darn fast and quickly become a nuisance invasive species.

  6. jerrywayne responds:

    To reply to cryptidsrus…

    I think the decaying floral mass scenario is meant to explain certain types of sightings, but not all. Sightings of an object suddenly appearing on the surface of the loch with accompanying water “boil” or disturbance, only to disappear again, may be explained by the known affects of decaying, submerged tree limbs or trunks (the Log Ness Monster).

    Water fowl at a distance, otters, standing waves, even boats at a very great distance, mirage, etc., may account for other aspects of the Ness phenomena.

    On the issue of Ness photos: Is there one still photograph taken at Ness that advocates today rally behind as good, indisputable evidence for the existence of “Nessie”? When I was a kid, there seemed to be three or four photos the “monster” enthusiasts always relied upon to present their case. Now, I wonder if there is even one.

  7. KristyBeast responds:

    I try to stay skeptical in matters such as this. But honestly, Nessie has been my favorite legend since I read my first “Unsolved Mysteries” book in the 5th grade.

    I see the logic behind the hoax theory in this particular case. But I don’t want to believe it. =( It’d be nice if someone could find solid proof.

  8. Dr. Strings responds:

    I too love the whole Nessie legend and would be happy if it was proven to be true, but calling the into question the hoax of the “Surgeon’s Photo” because the media hyped up Spurling’s confession, or that Wilson was at the Loch with his mistress, or getting into semantics over toys and plastics seems like a reach. Anybody linked to Weatherell must be looked at as suspicious, when it comes to legitimate evidence of any strange creature in the Loch, as he’s a proven fraud more than once. In all the reading I’ve done, the submarine was always described as a “toy submarine” and not a plastic model kit, so that’s 100% believable. I have not seen any article where the submarine was referred to as a “plastic model kit”, and Spurling himself called it a “toy submarine”. And whether he talked openly about it before 1994 really seems to have no bearing on the veracity of his claim. When doesn’t the media sensationalize something? The claims are also that the neck and head were made from plastic wood, which was available then and was used commonly in modeling in the 1930s. Plastic was already in widespread use in the 1920s in the form of bakelite, the first viable and affordable form of what we know as modern plastic.

    At the end of the day, it’s a photo that’s too good to be true. You would think that if the creature in that photo existed, at least one other photo or video of a head, neck, and body would have surfaced(no pun intended) since 1934, but all we’ve seen are hazy, blurry, unclear, and wildly ambiguous pictures and videos, with many of them hoaxes. It’s gotten to the point where sightings are almost nil and we’re starting to debate whether or not something that has never been proven to exist has died out and that’s the explanation to the lack of sightings and evidence in the new millennium.

  9. sonofthedestroyer responds:

    I can’t be certain if the Surgeons photo is real or not.
    I can’t say case closed because someone claimed to have created the ‘hoax’.
    Anyone can come forward and claim ‘they made the hoax’.
    And sightings occur all the time. Only a few people have the guts to report it, and only a few within that few are taken seriously by the authorities.

Sorry. Comments have been closed.

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