Arthur Conan Doyle

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Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle (22 May 1859-7 July 1930) was born in Edinburgh Scotland to Charles Altamont Doyle and Mary Foley, who had married in 1855.[1]

Conan Doyle's father was a chronic alcoholic, which led to his demise and committal to an institution when Conan Doyle co-signed the committal papers the year he returned from school. An idea of the circumstances surrounding the confinement of his father can be gleaned from his 1880 story The Surgeon of Gaster Fell His mother inspired his love of books and story telling, as he would later recall her "sinking her voice to a horror-stricken whisper" when telling stories.

Wealthy members of the Doyle family paid for Conan Doyle's education, which led to him being sent away to a Jesuit boarding school, Hodder Place, at Stonyhurst. He went on to study at Stonyhurst College before graduating in 1876 and returning to Edinburgh.

Conan Doyle was inspired by a lodger in his mother's home who studied medicine at Edinburgh University and decided to take up his medical studies there. During his time at the University he met fellow future authors including James Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson. But arguably Dr Joseph Bell would play a greater influence on his later literature as Conan Doyle recognised the skills of observation, logic, deduction and diagnosis which would become essential for his most famous character, Sherlock Holmes.

In his third year of study at Edinburgh he took the opportunity to act as a ship's surgeon on the Hope, a whaling boat which sailed to the Arctic Circle. This experience led to his first story about the sea, Captain of the Pole-Star.

In 1881, Conan Doyle obtained his Bachelor of Medicine and Master of Surgery degree. For the occassion he drew a humorous sketch of himself receiving his diploma, with the caption: "Licensed to Kill."

Conan Doyle's first employment after graduation was on board the Mayumba, a steamer heading from Liverpool to the West Coast of Africa. He found Africa detestable and on return to England took up a post with an unscrupulous doctor in Plymouth, an account of whom can be found in The Strak Munro Letters.

Conan Doyle left Plymouth and opened his first practice.

In August 1885 he married Louisa Hawkins, who he described in his memoirs as "gentle and amiable". Together they had two children, Mary Louise (1889) and Arthur Alleyne Kingsley (1892). Louisa suffered failing health which was diagnosed as tuberculosis and she became Conan Doyle's patient in the late years of their marriage, before her death in 1906. In 1907 he married Jean Elizabeth Leckie, whom it is said he fell in love with in 1897, but maintained a platonic relationship with in respect of his first wife. They had three children together: Denis Percy Stewart (1909); Adrian Malcolm (1910); and Jean Lena Annette (1912).

Conan Doyle's first Sherlock Holmes short stories were published in The Strand magazine. Conan Doyle's representative A.P Watt made the arrangements with The Strand and Sidney Paget took the role as illustrator of Sherlock Holmes.

In May 1891, Conan Doyle suffered a bout of influenza, leaving him bed ridden and between life and death for several days. It was this that led to his decision to end his medical career and focus upon writing as he declared "I should be my own master."

Despite the success of Holmes character, Conan Doyle felt weighed down by this character and stories which he felt were commercial at best and a distraction from his better work and the reputation he wanted to pursue as a serious author. This led to the demise of Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem when he plunged to his death at The Reichenbach Falls, Switzerland. The end of Sherlock Holmes perhaps hit The Strand magazine worst as twenty thousand readers cancelled their subscriptions.

Propaganda Role

The outbreak of the Boer War led Conan Doyle to decide to enlist, having written of so many battles he concluded he should take this opportunity to test his skills as a soldier. The British Military deemed him unfit to enlist and so he offered his services as a medical doctor. He wrote The Great Boer War on his return as well as a pamphlet entitled The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct which justified the UK's role in the Boer War. Conan Doyle believed it was this pamphlet that resulted in his knighthood in 1902. It has also been suggested that the King was a great fan of Sherlock Holmes and included Conan Doyle in his honours list as a means to encourage him to revive the character.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is perhaps Conan Doyle's most famous work. It began as a piece based on folkore he discovered after a prolonged stay on the Devonshire moors. But he decided that the story of an inhospitable manor, an escaped convict and a black sepulchral hound needed a hero. As he put it "why should I invent such a character, when I already have him in the form of Sherlock Holmes." This was not the revival of Sherlock Holmes, but was rather written as a previously untold story. Conan Doyle later went onto to revive Holmes with an explanation that he did not plunge to his death in Switzerland, but found it useful to be considered 'dead' for a time. The Strand was happy to begin publishing The Return of Sherlock Holmes in 1903.

Conan Doyle also worked upon miscarriages of justice. He proved that George Edalji, who had been convicted of slashing a number of horses and cows, would not have been capable of committing the acts due to his poor eyesight. He also detailed The Case of Oscar Slater. Later, he came close to succeeding in sparing Roger Clement from execution for treason on the grounds of insanity.

The First World War saw the loss of Conan Doyle's eldest son, his brother, his two brothers-in-law and his two nephews. It is thought that this may have started his deepening interest in Spiritualism. He started to take his family on Pshycic tours and published books on the matter. He also published a book on his belief in fairies and spirits which recreated the Cottingley Fairy photographs.



  1. This page is based largely on content found at Sherlock Homes Online, accessed 10 October 2008