The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The Professor's Last Experiment (1888)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The Professor’s Last Experiment was written by “Ritson & Stanley Stewart.” No information is available on “Ritson & Stanley Stewart,” and the joint names are likely a pseudonym. The Professor’s Last Experiment is ostensibly a First Contact, alien-visiting-Earth novel, but its real theme is the evils of vivisection.

The Professor’s Last Experiment is a series of diaries and letters which describe the visit of an alien to the Earth. The alien arrives here when his spherical, meteor-like ship crashes in rural England. Reverend Stonycroft, the narrator of most of The Professor’s Last Experiment, is out walking and sees the ship land and goes to the crash site. From the ship steps a creature who looks like a human of medium height and intellectual appearance, wearing an intense expression and a robe-like cloak. The creature approaches Stonycroft and initially treats the Reverend as his equal, but soon the alien’s expression and attitude toward Stonycroft changes to one of benign contempt, as if Stonycroft is his intellectual inferior.

Stonycroft takes the stranger home with him. The creature, who Stonycroft calls “the Marsman,” quickly learns English, but because the Marsman is telepathic and comes from a culture which abandoned speech long ago, his English is accented and his speech is sometimes halting. But the Marsman is intelligent, much more so than humans, and comes from an advanced culture, and he adapts to speech quickly. He reads Stonycroft’s thoughts and sees his limitations and asks Stonycroft to have more intellectually advanced men, including the mentalist Irving Bishop, Aldous Huxley, Professor Tyndall, and Herbert Spencer, come to meet him.

Stonycroft does not bring those men to see the Marsman, but Stonycroft does, gradually, introduce some of his friends to the Marsman, including Doctor Wright, a former pupil of the celebrated scientist Professor Altenstein. Altenstein is a controversial figure, a brilliant scientist who loves vivisection and disregards the suffering of the animals which he experiments on. Doctor Wright greatly respects Altenstein but disagrees with his stance on vivisection. The Marsman enjoys meeting the men, and they are astonished by the Marsman, but after the meeting Wright sends Stonycroft a letter warning him not to allow Altenstein to meet the Marsman, as Altenstein performs vivisection on living beings and wouldn’t scruple at conspiring to capture the Marsman toward that end. Stonycroft visits Wright and asks him to explain himself, but Wright is coy, not wanting to show too much ingratitude toward his former mentor or to endanger his romantic relationship with Altenstein’s niece.

Unfortunately, Altenstein hears about the Marsman from some of the other men who met the alien, so when Stonycroft returns from visiting Wright he finds the Marsman has disappeared. Stonycroft asks for a meeting with Altenstein, who claims ignorance about where the Marsman has gone. Stonycroft then receives a note written by the Marsman in which he describes his impressions of Earth. Stonycroft again meets with Altenstein, who becomes cold when he hears that Wright warned Stonycroft about him. Altenstein even threatens libel action against Stonycroft and Wright if their opinions about Altenstein’s experiments are made public. Stonycroft, on returning home, finds another note from the Marsman, this one describing his meeting with Altenstein. Altenstein, who was told that the Marsman could read “thought transmissions” through humans’ eyes, wore smoke-colored glasses, so the Marsman couldn’t read his mind and was thus forced to take Altenstein at his word. The Marsman accepted Altenstein’s invitation to visit him in his laboratory, but the visit went poorly. The Marsman was appalled at Altenstein’s vivisecting experiments, and Altenstein, on hearing that the Martians work to lessen suffering, called the Marsman a “sentimental bigot.” The Marsman wanted to leave, but Altenstein insisted that he stay the night, and once the Marsman entered his room he was trapped there. Altenstein told his niece that the Marsman was only a new species of monkey. But the niece spoke with the Marsman and saw that he was a good person, so she tried to help him escape by sending his notes to Stonycroft.

Stonycroft and Wright again confront Altenstein, who again claims innocence. He even invites Stonycroft and Wright to search his house and question his servants. They do, but they find nothing. Altenstein has obviously intimidated his niece into lying for him, but Stonycroft and Wright cannot prove anything, so they are forced to drop their search for the Marsman. Five years pass. Altenstein publishes landmark papers on the true functions of parts of the human brain. Stonycroft dies, never having found the Marsman. Wright dies in Africa, massacred by the natives. The author of The Professor’s Last Experiment lectures the reader on the evils of vivisection. Altenstein’s papers are based on his experiments on “the Borneo monkey,” and other scientists become eager to see the monkey that Altenstein learned so much from. Altenstein claims that the monkey is so ferocious that only he and his assistants can see it. The narrator, a friend of Stonycroft, reads Stonycroft’s notes and the notes from the Marsman and takes up the search for the alien. The narrator questions one of Altenstein’s lab assistants, the man who carried the Marsman’s notes to Stonycroft. The man tells the narrator about Altenstein’s lab and describes the manlike creature kept in the laboratory. When Altenstein’s niece saw this creature Altenstein had her was committed to an asylum. Other scientists manage to visit the laboratory and spread the word about Altenstein’s cruel experiments. The scientists describe a creature restrained, with his head and face in bandages. They also describe a pair of bat-like wings hanging on a wall. Their words create a scandal, and Altenstein’s reputation is badly damaged.

The Marsman, who knows that Altenstein’s lab assistant is sympathetic to him, asks the assistant to leave his “grey overcoat” close to him. The assistant does, and the next morning Altenstein is found dead. (The Marsman had a special “disc” in the pocket of the overcoat and used that to cut Altenstein’s throat). The Marsman then rescues his ship, which Altenstein had sent off to a mechanics’ shop to be “repaired.” The Marsman rescues Altenstein’s niece from the asylum, and the pair go home to Mars.

Whoever “Ritson & Stanley Stewart” were, they were at least capable of competent prose, and The Professor’s Last Experiment is certainly readable. However, those looking for a particularly sophisticated or imaginative treatment of an alien culture or an alien’s impressions of human culture will be disappointed. The Marsman’s personality is not very alien, and his impressions of human nature and culture, which are mostly negative, are those of a human misanthrope rather than something truly alien and non-human. The most notable aspect of the book is its most didactic: the anti-vivisection theme. The author is passionately opposed to vivisection and clearly wrote The Professor’s Last Experiment as a tract to support his views. He does not shy away from describing the horrors of vivisection, either, from the torture it inflicts on animals, to the pain it causes the Marsman during his five years as a captive, to the effect it has on those who practice it. The author of The Professor’s Last Experiment clearly sees vivisection as something practiced by evil men, and something which drives good men to evil.

Like most other anti-vivisection fiction of the era, including novels by Compton Reade, Barry Pain, and Sarah Grand, The Professor’s Last Experiment took the subject very seriously, and portrayed the science as accurately as possible, even including footnotes and learned allusions. And like those other novels, The Professor’s Last Experiment portrays the vivisecting scientist as “brutal, secretive, and narrow”1 and “unscrupulous, narrow, jealous, unsociable, scientifically self-seeking, and irascible.”2 “The inclusion of such character traits signals the indebtedness of antivivisection novels to the non-realist forms of the Victorian novel, particularly sensation fiction.”3 

The Professor’s Last Experiment is also representative of the pre-H.G. Wells, pre-War of the Worlds approach of Victorian fiction to the prospect of First Contact with aliens. As in The History of a Voyage to the Moon (1864) and The Triumphs of Woman (1848) and A Voice From Another World (1865), the alien in The Professor’s Last Experiment is a peaceful representative of a higher, more advanced civilization–the modern version of the medieval visitation-of-an-angel stories. It wasn’t until the 1890s, when the fin-de-siècle unease was at its peak and fears of a future war were widespread, that the visiting friendly alien began to become the invading hostile alien, but The Professor’s Last Experiment can be seen as a precursor to War of the Worlds and Between Two Planets and the other alien-invasion novels of the 1890s.

Recommended Edition

Print: Stanley Stewart, The Professor’s Last Experiment. London: British Library, 2011.

1 Ritson and Stanley Stewart, The Professor’s Last Experiment (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1888), 18.

2 Stewart, The Professor’s Last Experiment, 59.

3 Anne DeWitt, Moral Authority, Men of Science, and the Victorian Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 149.