Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Biography | Life Timeline

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a British physician and author who is best known for his creation of Sherlock Holmes, a fictional detective based in London, and Dr. John Watson, his steadfast friend and roommate.

Doyle's love of stories began as a child. Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on May 22, 1859 to an English father and an Irish mother. His father, Charles Altamont Doyle worked for the Scottish government and was a somewhat successful artist. It is believed that his father's disappointment in finding greater success as an artist led to him becoming an alcoholic. Arthur Doyle's mother, Mary Foley Doyle was smart and determined. Though the family was poor throughout his childhood, his mother enriched his life with her engrossing stories. She was an avid storyteller and her family were enthusiastic listeners, so much so that he once said of her: 'the vivid stories she would tell me stand out so clearly that they obscure the real facts of my life.' This early exposure to rich narratives primed Doyle for creating his own tales.

At the age of 9, Arthur was sent to boarding school, which was paid for by wealthy members of the Doyle family. The Jesuit prep school he attended was strict and he did not like being there, but he was able to hone his craft by telling stories to amuse his fellow classmates. To make money, his mother ran a boarding house and one lodger, Dr. Bryan Charles Waller, made a positive impression on him, leading him to attend the same medical school to become a doctor. It was at the University of Edinburgh Medical School that Doyle was introduced to Dr. Joseph Bell, a professor who excelled at diagnosing patients thanks to his keen sense of observation. Dr. Bell applied his techniques and expertise to criminal investigations and is actually credited as being the father of forensic science. It is clear to see how Arthur Conan Doyle modeled Sherlock Holmes after this talented surgeon and teacher.

While at university, Doyle met other writers including James Barrie, author of Peter Pan, and Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Doyle was writing stories even while attending medical school, and he published The Mystery of Sasassa Valley before graduating.

In 1885, Doyle received his M.D. - eventually specializing in eye health as an ophthalmologist - and married Louisa 'Touie' Hawkins.

Just two years after receiving his M.D., Doyle's first Sherlock novel, A Study in Scarlet, was published in Beeton's Christmas Annual at the end of 1887. The main characters were originally called Sherrinford Hope* and Ormond Sacker, but the names were changed to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson by the time of publication, and a legendary team was born. Doyle did not consider his fictional detective stories to be serious writing; to him, they were more a source of income. He thought his other literary work, like the novel Micah Clarke, was more artistic and reflective of his creativity.
Over the years, the couple had two children, a daughter and a son, Mary Louise and Arthur Alleyne Kingsley (who was called Kingsley). He established a medical office in London, though he had few patients. He finished writing and published the novel, The Sign of Four, and then began writing short stories instead. They were published monthly in the Strand Magazine, a popular publication at the time. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson became famous around the world. A year after their son's birth, Louisa was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1893. In an effort to ease symptoms of her illness, the family often took trips to Switzerland and Egypt, where the climates there made breathing easier. On one trip with his family to Switzerland, the location of Sherlock's final battle with his nemesis, Professor James Moriarty, was determined. Doyle did not enjoy using time to write Holmes' mysteries despite world-wide success, and determined to kill the character in order to open up opportunities to write about other things. After publishing The Final Problem, a deluge of public outcry over the loss of their beloved detective (and even his own mother) pressured him into resurrecting the famous detective.

Doyle did manage to find time to write both historical novels and other short stories including The Lost World, Professor Challenger, and Sir Nigel.

He met Jean Elizabeth Leckie in 1897 at a party, and while he remained steadfast in his care for his ailing wife, he fell in love with Jean at first sight. It would be another 9 years before Louisa died of tuberculosis in July 1906. After a standard period of mourning, Arthur Conan Doyle married Jean Leckie in September 1907. Together, they had three children, Denis, Adrian and little Jean. They remained married until his death on July 7th, 1930 at age 71.

Arthur Conan Doyle was not always a 'Sir'. He was given the title in 1902 by King Edward VII after initially being disinclined to accept it. Doyle was certainly well-known and highly regarded in the literary realm by then, but it was his essay 'The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct', written in 1901, that prompted the offer to knighthood. Because his age (he was 40) precluded him from serving as a soldier in war, he came out of medical retirement and served his country as a doctor in the Second Boer War instead. This war in South Africa lasted from 1899 to 1902. The Boers accused Britain's troops of war crimes. Having been there, Doyle took to the pen to respond to the claims. What the Boers called 'concentration camps', Doyle explained, were actually refugee camps for those fleeing the fighting. While disease took many lives in the camps, he contended that civilians were treated as well as troops, not at all in the way described by the Boers. Doyle returned to Great Britain in 1900 and his letter, published in January 1901 after his return, helped to greatly alleviate bad public opinion toward Great Britain. That June, Doyle was invited to dine with the then-Crown Prince. After such an amiable meeting, he determined he would no longer decline a knighthood if one was offered, and almost two years after Queen Victoria's death, King Edward VII knighted him Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on October 24, 1902.

Kingsley, Doyle's eldest son, enlisted and fought in the Great War (World War I), was terribly wounded in battle in 1916, and died while recuperating in 1918. The grief over his loss may have inspired Doyle's deeper interest in Spiritualism, a movement that purported communication between the living and the dead was possible. He was convinced his wife, Jean, was able to communicate with the dead as a medium, and she believed him. They often held séances at their home in Sussex. Jean's attempt to contact the dead mother of his friend, escape artist Harry Houdini, led to the eventual break-up of the friendship. The 15-page letter written by Jean as a medium, which was supposedly Houdini's mother's writing, had perfect English even though his mother only spoke broken English in life. Afterward, Houdini publicly denounced mediums, even testifying before U.S. Congress to support laws that would criminalize payed mediums and fortune-tellers, who preyed on grieving victims. Doyle went on to write The History of Spiritualism, and in the years before his death, he gave an interview on the subject as well as his creation of the character of Sherlock Holmes. It was a short conversation where he described his personal interest and earnest belief in psychic matters and philosophy, but also how he used logic, observation, and scientific deduction when writing mysteries for Sherlock. He died three years later, in 1930, of a heart attack.

* Some sources spelled it Sherringford Hope, while others claim it was Sherrinford Holmes.

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