Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Author, Writer, Physician

Born: 22 May 1859, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Died: 7 July 1930, Crowborough, England.

Genre: Detective fiction, fantasy, science fiction, historical novels, non-fiction.

Notable Work: Stories of Sherlock Holmes, The Lost World

Childhood and Early Life

Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born on May 22, 1859, in Edinburgh, Scotland. The Doyles were a prosperous Irish-Catholic family. Charles Altamont Doyle, Arthur’s father, a chronic alcoholic, was a moderately successful artist, who apart from fathering a brilliant son, never accomplished anything of note. Doyle’s mother, Mary, was a lively and well-educated woman who loved to read. She particularly delighted in telling her young son outlandish stories. Her great enthusiasm and animation while spinning wild tales sparked the child’s imagination. As Doyle would later recall in his biography, “In my early childhood, as far as I can remember anything at all, the vivid stories she would tell me stand out so clearly that they obscure the real facts of my life.

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At the age of 9, Doyle bid a tearful goodbye to his parents and was shipped off to England, where he would attend Hodder Place, Stonyhurst—a Jesuit preparatory school—from 1868 to 1870. Doyle then went on to study at Stonyhurst College for the next five years. For Doyle, the boarding-school experience was brutal: many of his classmates bullied him, and the school practiced ruthless corporal punishment against its students.

During those grueling years, Arthur’s only moments of happiness were when he wrote to his mother, a regular habit that lasted for the rest of her life, and also when he practiced sports, mainly cricket, at which he was very good. It was during these difficult years at boarding school that Arthur realized he also had a talent for storytelling. He was often found surrounded by a bevy of totally enraptured younger students listening to the amazing stories he would make up to amuse them.

By 1876, graduating at the age of seventeen, Arthur Doyle, (as he was called, before adding his middle name “Conan” to his surname), was a surprisingly normal young man. With his innate sense of humor and his sportsmanship, having ruled out any feelings of self-pity, Arthur was ready and willing to face the world.

Years later he wrote, “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.” It has been said that Arthur’s first task, when back from school, was to co-sign the committal papers of his father, who by then was seriously demented.

One can get a fairly good idea of the dramatic circumstances which surrounded the confinement of his father to a lunatic asylum in a story Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in 1880 called The Surgeon of Gaster Fell.

Medical Education and Career

When Doyle graduated from Stonyhurst College in 1876, his parents expected that he would follow in his family’s footsteps and study art, so they were surprised when he decided to pursue a medical degree at the University of Edinburgh instead. This decision was influenced by Dr. Bryan Charles Waller, a young lodger his mother had taken-in to make ends meet. Dr. Waller had trained at the University of Edinburgh and that is where Arthur was sent to carry out his medical studies.

At med school, Doyle met his mentor, Professor Dr. Joseph Bell, whose keen powers of observation would later inspire Doyle to create his famed fictional detective character, Sherlock Holmes. At the University of Edinburgh, Doyle also had the good fortune to meet classmates and future fellow authors James Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson. While a medical student, Doyle took his own first stab at writing, with a short story called The Mystery of Sasassa Valley which was very evocative of the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Bret Harte, his favorite authors at the time. It was accepted in an Edinburgh magazine called Chamber’s Journal, which had published Thomas Hardy’s first work.

That same year, Conan Doyle’s second story The American Tale was published in London Society, making him write much later, “It was in this year that I first learned that shillings might be earned in other ways than by filling phials.”

During Doyle’s third year of medical school, he took a ship surgeon’s post on a whaling ship sailing for the Arctic Circle. The voyage awakened Doyle’s sense of adventure, a feeling that he incorporated into a story, Captain of the Pole Star.

In 1880, Doyle returned to medical school. Back at the University of Edinburgh, Doyle became increasingly invested in Spiritualism or “Psychic religion,” a belief system that he would later attempt to spread through a series of his written works. By the time he received his Bachelor of Medicine degree in 1881, Doyle had denounced his Roman Catholic faith.

Doyle’s first paying job as a doctor took the form of a medical officer’s position aboard the steamship Mayumba, travelling from Liverpool to Africa. After his stint on the Mayumba, Doyle settled in Plymouth, England for a time. When his funds were nearly tapped out, he relocated to Portsmouth and opened his first practice. He spent the next few years struggling to balance his burgeoning medical career with his efforts to gain recognition as an author. Doyle would later give up medicine altogether, in order to devote all of his attention to his writing and his faith.

Personal Life

In 1885, while still struggling to make it as a writer, Doyle met and married his first wife, Louisa Hawkins, the sister of one of his patients. He described her in his memoirs as having been “gentle and amiable.”

The couple moved to Upper Wimpole Street and had two children, a daughter and a son. In 1893, Louisa was diagnosed with tuberculosis. It is believed that Conan Doyle, a man with the highest moral standards, remained celibate during the rest of Louisa’s life. That didn’t prevent him from falling deeply in love with Jean Leckie the first time he saw her in March of 1897. Aged twenty-four, she was a strikingly beautiful woman, with dark-blond hair and bright green eyes. Her many accomplishments were quite unusual for those times: she was an intellectual, a good sportswoman as well as a trained mezzo-soprano. What further attracted Conan Doyle was that her family claimed to be related to the Scottish hero Rob Roy. Louisa ultimately died of tuberculosis in Doyle’s arms, in 1906. The following year, Doyle would remarry to Jean Leckie, with whom he would have two sons and a daughter.

Writing Career

In 1886, newly married and still struggling to make it as an author, Doyle started writing the mystery novel A Tangled Skein. Two years later, the novel was renamed A Study in Scarlet and published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual.

Beeton's magazine
Beeton’s Christmas Annual of 1887, where “A Study in Scarlet” was first published

A Study in Scarlet, which first introduced the wildly popular characters Detective Sherlock Holmes and his assistant, Watson, finally earned Doyle the recognition he had so desired. It was the first of 60 stories that Doyle would pen about Sherlock Holmes over the course of his writing career. Conan Doyle much preferred his next novel Micah Clark, which though well received, is by now almost forgotten. This marked the start of a serious dichotomy in the author’s life. There was Sherlock Holmes, who very quickly became world famous, in stories its author considered at best “commercial” and there were a number of serious historical novels, poems and plays, for which Conan Doyle expected to be recognized as a serious author.

In 1887, Doyle submitted two letters about his conversion to Spiritualism to a weekly periodical called Light. Doyle continued to actively participate in the Spiritualist movement from 1887 to 1916, during which time he wrote three books that experts consider largely autobiographical. These include Beyond the City (1893), The Stark Munro Letters (1895) and A Duet with an Occasional Chorus (1899). Upon achieving success as a writer, Doyle decided to retire from medicine. Throughout this period, he additionally produced a handful of historical novels including one about the Napoleonic Era called The Great Shadow in 1892, and his most famous historical novel, Rodney Stone, in 1896.

Pencil Sketch of sherlock holmes by sidney paget
Pencil Sketch of Sherlock Holmes by Sydney Paget

The prolific author also composed four of his most popular Sherlock Holmes books during the 1890s and early 1900s: The Sign of Four (1890), The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892), The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1894) and The Hound of Baskervilles, published in 1901. In 1893, to Doyle’s readers’ disdain, he had attempted to kill off his Sherlock Holmes character in order to focus more on writing about Spiritualism. In 1901, however, Doyle reintroduced Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of Baskervilles and later brought him back to life in The Adventure of the Empty House so the lucrative character could earn Doyle the money to fund his missionary work. Doyle also strove to spread his faith through a series of written works, consisting of The New Revolution (1918), The Vital Message (1919), The Wanderings of a Spiritualist (1921) and History of Spiritualism (1926).

In 1928, Doyle’s final twelve stories about Sherlock Holmes were published in a compilation entitled The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes.

Death

In the autumn of 1929, in spite of having been diagnosed with Angina Pectoris, Conan Doyle went off for his last Psychic tour to Holland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. He was in such pain by the time he returned, that he had to be carried ashore. Bedridden from that time on, he managed to have one last quixotic adventure on a cold spring day in 1930. He rose from his bed, and unseen went into the garden. When he was found, he was lying on the ground, one hand clutching his heart, the other holding a single white snowdrop.

Arthur Conan Doyle died on Monday, July 7, 1930, surrounded by his family. His last words before departing for “the greatest and most glorious adventure of all,” were addressed to his wife. He whispered, “You are wonderful.”

Books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Novels by Doyle
Title Publication Year Series or Genre
A Study in Scarlet 1887 Sherlock Holmes
Micah Clarke 1889 Historical fiction
The Mystery of Cloomber 1889 Horror/adventure
The Sign of the Four 1890 Sherlock Holmes
The Firm of Girdlestone 1890 Historical fiction
The White Company 1891 Historical fiction
The Doings of Raffles Haw 1891 Horror/adventure
The Great Shadow 1892 Historical fiction
The Refugees 1893 Historical fiction
The Parasite 1894 Horror/adventure
The Stark Munro Letters 1895
Rodney Stone 1896 Historical fiction
Uncle Bernac 1897 Historical fiction
The Tragedy of the Korosko 1898 Historical fiction
A Duet, with an Occasional Chorus 1899
The Hound of the Baskervilles 1902 Sherlock Holmes
Sir Nigel 1906 Historical fiction
The Lost World 1912 Professor Challenger
The Poison Belt 1913 Professor Challenger
The Valley of Fear 1915 Sherlock Holmes
The Land of Mist 1926 Professor Challenger
The Maracot Deep 1929 Horror/adventure
Short Story Collection
Title Publication Year Series or Genre
Mysteries and Adventures 1890 Mysteries
The Captain of the Polestar and Other Tales 1890
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes 1892 Sherlock Holmes
The Gully of Bluemansdyke 1893 Mysteries
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes 1894 Sherlock Holmes
Round the Red Lamp: Being Facts and Fancies of Medical Life 1894
The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard 1896 Brigadier Gerard
The Green Flag and Other Stories of War and Sport 1900
The Adventures of Gerard 1903 Brigadier Gerard
The Return of Sherlock Holmes 1905 Sherlock Holmes
Round the Fire Stories 1908
The Last Galley 1911
His Last Bow 1917 Sherlock Holmes
Danger! and Other Stories 1918
Three of Them 1923
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes 1927 Sherlock Holmes

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