Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle, creator of the most famous detective in English literature, was born on May 22, 1859, in Edinburgh, Scotland. His father, Charles Altamont Doyle, was a chronic alcoholic, while his mother, Mary, passed her gift for storytelling to her son. Arthur recalled his mother’s habit of “sinking her voice to a horror-stricken whisper” as she reached the climax of a tale. Her stories overshadowed the hardships of a home with little money and an erratic father. “In my early childhood, as far as I can remember anything at all,” Arthur said, “the vivid stories she would tell me stand out so clearly that they obscure the real facts of my life.”
Any innocence that was salvaged from that childhood ended during Arthur’s early education. Beginning at age nine, wealthier Doyle family members paid his way through the Jesuit boarding school Hodder Place, where he spent seven unhappy years in Stonyhurst, England, plagued by bigotry in academic subjects and the brutal corporal punishment common to such schools of the period. His only relief came in corresponding with his mother and practicing sports, mainly cricket, at which he excelled. He also discovered his own aptitude for storytelling during these years, drawing upon his innate sense of humor to delight younger students, who would crowd around to listen.
After graduating in 1876, Arthur returned to Scotland, determined not to follow in his father’s footsteps. “Perhaps it was good for me that the times were hard, for I was wild, full blooded and a trifle reckless. But the situation called for energy and application so that one was bound to try to meet it. My mother had been so splendid that I could not fail her,” he wrote years later. The first necessary action was to co-sign the committal papers of his father, who was by then seriously demented, to a lunatic asylum.
Aside from Charles, the Doyle family held a prominent position in the world of art, and it would have been natural for Arthur to have immediately carried on in that tradition. But he chose medicine instead, attending the University of Edinburgh to complete his training. At the university he met several fellow students who would later become major British authors, including James Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson. But the man with the greatest influence over seventeen-year-old Arthur was a teacher, Dr. Joseph Bell, who ultimately inspired the character of Sherlock Holmes. One can clearly see the qualities Arthur most admired in Dr. Bell in the detective. “It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes,” he wrote the doctor. “…[R]ound the centre of deduction and inference and observation which I have heard you inculcate I have tried to build up a man.”
Holmes would not appear for several years, but it was during medical school that Arthur began to write short stories. The first piece, The Mystery of Sasassa Valley, was reminiscent of his favorite authors, Edgar Alan Poe and Bret Harte, and was accepted for publication in Chamber’s Journal, an Edinburgh magazine. The next story, The American Tale, was published the same year in London Society. “It was in this year,” he wrote later, “that I first learned that shillings might be earned in other ways than by filling phials.”
At the age of twenty and in his third year of medical school, Arthur boarded the whaling boat Hope as the ship’s surgeon, traveling to the shores of Greenland for the crew’s seal and whale hunts. “I went on board the whaler a big straggling youth. I came off a powerful well-grown man,” he reflected. The trip had “awakened the soul of a born wanderer.” He returned to school in 1880, and while he struggled with his medical studies after his Arctic adventure, he nevertheless completed his Bachelor of Medicine and Master of Surgery degree a year later, officially becoming Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle.
The new doctor opened his first private practice in Portsmouth. Although it is said he only had £10 to his name when he began, by the end of three years he was starting to make a living for himself. In 1885 he married Louisa Hawkins, a “gentle and amiable” young woman. In the midst of his medical practice and new marriage, he also spent time developing his writing career. In 1886 he began A Tangled Skein, a novel featuring characters named Sheridan Hope and Ormond Stacker. When it was published two years later in Beeton’s Christmas Annual, he had changed the title to A Study in Scarlet and now introduced readers to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson.
Sherlock Holmes quickly became world famous, and so began a dichotomy in Conan Doyle’s life. He struggled between the commercial success of the Holmes stories and his preference for writing historical novels, poems, and plays, which he believed would bring him recognition as a serious author. Another disparity arose between Conan Doyle’s brilliant use of logic and deduction, on one hand, and his fascination with the paranormal and spiritualism, a practice to which he became devoted later in life, on the other.
By the late 1880s, Conan Doyle was better known in the United States than in England. But in 1889 the publisher of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in Philadelphia came to London to create a British edition of the magazine. He arranged a dinner with Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde. The two writers got along famously. (“It was indeed a golden evening for me,” Conan Doyle wrote), and the publisher commissioned a short novel from Conan Doyle, which was published in 1890 in both England and the U.S. This story, The Sign of Four, played a significant role in elevating the profile of Sherlock Holmes and his creator in literary history.
In order to write The Sign of the Four, however, the young author had to put aside an historical novel on which he had been working, The White Company. As this was the type of literature he most enjoyed writing, he felt he would never find as much satisfaction in or accomplishment in the Holmes series. “I was young and full of the first joy of life and action,” he remarked about writing The White Company, “and I think I got some of it into my pages. When I wrote the last line, I remember that I cried: ‘Well, I’ll never beat that’ and threw the inky pen at the opposite wall.”
After a brief move to Austria, Conan Doyle relocated to London, opening an ophthalmology practice in Upper Wimpole Street. Lacking any patients, however, he had plenty of time to contemplate the next step in his career. He decided to write a series of short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes. It turned out to be the most profitable decision of his life. His agent made a deal with The Strand Magazine to publish the stories, and the visual likeness of Holmes was immortalized by illustrator Sidney Paget, who used his brother Walter as a model. The artistic collaboration between Conan Doyle and Paget would last for many decades, branding both the persona and the image of Sherlock Holmes worldwide.
Conan Doyle’s medical career came to an end after a near-death bout of influenza in 1891, which helped to clarify his priorities. “With a rush of joy” he chose to step away from his medical career. “I remember in my delight taking the handkerchief which lay upon the coverlet in my enfeebled hand, and tossing it up to the ceiling in my exultation,” he recalled. “I should at last be my own master.”
Being his own master, however, involved making artistic choices that did not always meet with public approval. Conan Doyle felt burdened by Sherlock Holmes. In November 1891 he wrote to his mother,
“I think of slaying Holmes…and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things.” In December 1893 he did the deed, killing off Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem by sending the detective and his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, plummeting to their deaths at the Reichenbach Falls. The author was now free of the character that had eclipsed what he considered his better work. But his mother had warned him, “You may do what you deem fit, but the crowds will not take this lightheartedly,” and indeed, twenty thousand readers expressed their disapproval by cancelling their subscriptions to The Strand Magazine.
The Hound of Baskervilles, serialized in The Strand Magazine beginning in 1901, was inspired by a stay on the Devonshire moors in southwest England. The real-life Fox Tor Mires were supposedly the inspiration for the novel’s great Grimpen Mire, the prison at Dartmoor contributed to the idea of an escaped convict – Slasher Seldon – on the loose, and folklore lent the spectral hound to the story. At some point, however, Conan Doyle realized his tale lacked a hero. He’s quoted as having said, “Why should I invent such a character, when I already have him in the form of Sherlock Holmes?” Since he had killed off Sherlock in The Final Problem, he wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles as if it was a previously untold Holmes caper. In subsequent Holmes stories Conan Doyle brought the detective back, explaining that he had not actually died along with Professor Moriarty but had arranged to be temporarily “dead” to evade his other dangerous enemies.
In his personal life, Conan Doyle was dealing with weighty issues. Louisa had been diagnosed with tuberculosis in the 1890s. The prognosis was dire, but Conan Doyle was able to nurse her years beyond her doctors’ expectations. He also, however, fell in love with another woman during that time. When Louisa died in his arms in 1906, he had been involved in a clandestine, although platonic, courtship with Jean Elizabeth Leckie for nine years. Conan Doyle fought a deep depression for several months after Louisa’s death, but roused himself by helping to exonerate a young man who had been accused of vicious crimes that the former doctor realized the man wasn’t capable of committing. The next year, Jean Leckie became Lady Conan Doyle.
The young man was the first of several individuals on whose behalf Conan Doyle intervened in the courts. He was deeply committed to justice and public service and used his instincts and training to further those causes. Turned down for military service in both the Boer War and World War I due to his age, he nevertheless volunteered as a medical doctor in South Africa during the Boer War. In 1902 he was knighted by King Edward VII for his service to the Crown. He also twice ran for Parliament as a Liberal Unionist, earning respectable votes but neither time winning the election.
Conan Doyle had five children – a daughter and a son with Louisa and two sons and a daughter with Jean – and lost five men in his family – his first son, brother, two brothers-in-law, and two nephews – in World War I. After his marriage to Jean, the pace of his writing subsided considerably. He did, however, give playwriting further attention. 1912’s The Speckled Band, was based on a well-known Holmes story. It proved both a critical and commercial success on the stage, unlike some of his earlier plays. Before too long, though, Conan Doyle decided to retire from theatrical work, “Not because it doesn’t interest me, but because it interests me too much.”
He may be best known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, but Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger series, which began with The Lost World in 1912, was also highly successful and made a profound mark on the as-yet-unnamed “science fiction” genre. Increasingly, the celebrated author retreated into this world of science fiction, and also into spiritualism. He and his family traveled to three continents on psychic crusades. He spent over £250,000 on his religious pursuits and wrote primarily about spiritualism for a period, until the financial toll drove him back to writing fiction. First came three more Professor Challenger books, followed by a compilation of Sherlock Holmes adventures in The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes in 1927.
Near the end of his life, Conan Doyle was diagnosed with angina pectoris, commonly caused by coronary heart disease. Pushing himself to the end, he took one final psychic tour of northern Europe in late 1929, after which he was bedridden for the rest of his days. He died on July 7, 1930, surrounded by his family, whispering his last words to Jean: “You are wonderful.” The epitaph on his gravestone in the churchyard at Minstead in the New Forest, Hampshire, reads, “Steel True/Blade Straight/Arthur Conan Doyle/Knight/Patriot, Physician & Man of Letters.” A statue honors him in Crowborough, East Sussex, England. And back in Edinburgh, close to the house in which the beloved writer was born, stands a statue of Sherlock Holmes.
Compiled by Alison R Klejna. Information sourced from the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Biography at SherlockHolmesOnline.org and the Arthur Conan Doyle entry on Wikipedia.org.