Brainwashing for charity: Doc Savage’s Crime College

People who know very little about Doc Savage still know about the “crime college.” It even turns up in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, wherein someone remembers Doc planning to lock all the criminals on Earth away on a desert island where he would use brain surgery to turn them into decent citizens (this is an inaccurate recollection). The crime college was where Doc performed those operations, though only crooks who crossed his path — he never went out and tried to actively wipe out crime. A lot of modern takes ignore the whole thing rather than deal with the implications (Marvel’s Bronze Age color and B&W series) while others mention it but just to show that it’s not such a cool idea. (meanwhile the Shadow goes right on gunning crooks down and nobody questions that — but I digress)

The concept of the college didn’t start out full-blown. In Doc’s second adventure Land of Terror, we learn Doc doesn’t turn crooks he captures over to the cops. Insted, he sends them to a private mental hospital where they receive years of intensive psychotherapy to turn them into honest citizens. Two novels later, The Polar Treasure refers to the hospital performing brain operations that wipe out their memories. The inconsistency isn’t based on Doc switching methods, as The Purple Dragon shows he’s been erasing memories since 1929.

Philip José Farmer suggests in his Doc Savage bio that Doc simply lied to Lester Dent, then decided readers would be okay with it (the hook for Farmer’s bio being that Dent’s stories were fictionalized versions of true events). As I don’t subscribe to that theory, even though it’s fun, I don’t have an explanation. It’s an inconsistency, but not a huge one; I can live with it. I am curious why Dent decided on the switch; perhaps cutting-edge brain surgery fit his concept for Doc better than a relatively realistic method did.

The Annihilist claims it’s not brain surgery but glandular surgery. There’s a particular gland that influences our sense of right or wrong; in criminals it’s out of whack, but Doc uses a combination of drugs and surgery to reset it to “moral” as well as wiping their memories. The bad guys are interested in getting the secret, then using it to turn bankers and others into sociopaths who’ll happily collaborate in crime.

This is much less convincing pseudoscience than brain surgery. It’s also the only time the novels mention this mysterious gland rather than reformation through surgery alone. I’m guessing Dent, like many series authors, got an idea that didn’t work with regular continuity, so he bent it for one story (and it is a heck of a story). I considered whether maybe it’s just a mistake and the crooks don’t really understand the surgical work, but Doc confirms that the crime gland exists and so does the treatment to turn people evil.

It’s possible enough people learn about the crime college in this book that the story spreads. That would explain how the crooks in Purple Dragon and The Flying Goblin know about it, though not their knowledge of who’s locked up there and where some of them have begun their new lives. The criminals in The Talking Devil know enough about the college to stir up rumors about Doc performing some kind of monstrous experiments on unwilling patients. What Doc is doing there is blatantly illegal (kidnapping, among other things) and unethical (medical ethics do not allow brain surgery without informed consent)but apparently the stories about the college never became substantial enough anyone in authority wanted to push the issue.

Most of the graduates, from what we see of them, go on to get good working-class jobs. After WW II breaks out, though, Doc starts placing some of them around the world as a spy network (established in Three Wild Men). As the war progresses and adventures become increasingly mundane, the college just fades away, like many of Doc’s more fantastic aspects.

But the memory of it obviously lingered on with fans.

#SFWApro. Covers by Bob Larkin (top) and James Bama, all rights remain with current

1 Comment

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One response to “Brainwashing for charity: Doc Savage’s Crime College

  1. Pingback: The Savage Time: Rick Lai’s Doc Savage Chronology | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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