Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born May 22, 1859 in Edinburgh, Scotland
. He was the second child of Charles Altamont Doyle
and Mary Foley Doyle
. They had wed when Charles was 22 and Mary was 17. They were part of a prosperous Irish-Catholic
family which had a prominent position in the world of Art. The prosperity didn't extend to Arthur's immediate family however, there being little money due to Charles' alcoholism
and erratic and excessive behavior. Charles was a civil servant who supplimented his income by painting and illustrating. The number of children by this union is disputed but at least 7 were known to survive to adulthood. His mother was well educated and loved books. She would entertain her young son with tales delivered so convincingly that he later was quoted to say the following: "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".
At age 9, more prosperous members of the family volunteered to fund Arthur's education. He was sent off to England where he was to spend 7 years at a Jesuit boarding school. He attended Saint Mary's Hall, Stonyhurst and later Stonyhurst College. Arthur hated the school and its strict discipline. He found some solace in writing his mother and in athletics. He found he had a talent for cricket. He also discovered that he had a talent for storytelling, often being found with a group of enthralled youngsters listening to the tales he would spin for them. He graduated in 1876 at the age of 17. The strictures of his education hadn't made him bitter, but were rather overcome by his natural good humor and sense of fair play. Upon his return home the first order of business was to sign the commital papers for his father, who by that time had become seriously demented. Young Doyle then continued his education by entering the University of Edinburgh to study medicine. There he encountered several future authors including Robert Louis Stevenson. The most influential person he encountered was a teacher named Dr. Joseph Bell. Dr. Bell was to gain immortality by becoming the model for the future Sherlock Holmes. A couple of years into university saw Doyle try his hand at writing a short story. The result was The Mystery of Sasassa Valley, which was accepted for publication by an Edinburgh magazine named Chambers Journal. That same year saw the publication of his second story The American Tale in London Society.
Off to sea
At the age of 20, when he was in his 3rd year of studies at Edinburgh, he was offered a post as ship's surgeon on a whaling vessel bound for the Arctic Circle. His adventures while serving on the Hope found themselves into his first seafaring tale called Captain of the Pole-Star.
Back to school
Having left to go to sea as a youth, Doyle returned as a man. He had filled out, grown up, and acquired a taste for adventure. He returned to his studies at Edinburgh in the fall of 1880 without enthusiasm but earned his diploma the next year. His degree was a Bachelor of Medicine and Master of Surgery.
Arthur Conan Doyle lost little time after graduation, accepting a commission as medical officer aboard the Mayumba. This ship was a battered old vessel running between Liverpool and Africa's west coast. He found he disliked Africa with the same fervor he had loved the Arctic and resigned after the first trip. He entered the practice of medicine in Plymouth alongside an unscrupulous practicioner, but that adventure was short-lived. Almost broke, he left for Portsmouth to open his own practice. Finding quarters to open his practice, he could only afford to furnish the 2 rooms where he saw patients. The prospects were dire, but with hard work and compassion he was earning a comfortable income by his third year. In 1885 he was married to a young lady named Louisa Hawkins whom he described as gentle and amiable, a curiously dispassionate description of his wife.
An author is born
In March 1886 Doyle started work on the novel which would catapult him to the literary fame he so desired. Two years later it found publication in Beeton's Christmas Annual under the title A Study in Scarlet,and the world was introduced to Sherlock Holmes and his accomplice Dr. Watson. An interesting sidenote is that the story and the 2 main characters all bore different names while under development.
This began what was to become a conflict in the author's psyche. He didn't particularly like his character Sherlock Holmes, while the public was insatiable in their hunger for more. Doyle's next novel Micah Clark was well received but was soon almost forgotten. Doyle wrote many serious works such as historical novels, plays, and poems, but they weren't met with the applause granted his fictional sleuth.
In August of 1889 American publisher Joseph Marshall Stoddart arrived in London to establish an English edition of his magazine, Lippincott's Monthly Magazine. He invited Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde to dine with him at the Langham Hotel. He commissioned Doyle to write a short novel for his venture, and it saw publication in 1890 in both England and the US. This story, The Sign of Four, was to cement Sherlock Holmes and his creator into the world of literature forever.
Life was good for Arthur Conan Doyle. He had achieved literary fame, had a busy medical practice, a good home life, and a new daughter named Mary. His soul was restless though, and he embarked on a move to Vienna to study ophthalmology. He was defeated by the language barrier and returned to England. He opened a new practice in London on elegant Upper Wimpole Street, but was dismayed to find a dearth of patients. He applied his new found free time to literary pursuits. Doyle also engaged the services of A. P. Watt to act as agent for him, removing the need to conduct what he termed 'hateful bargaining'. Watt made the deal with the Strand Magazine to publish a series of short stories featuring Doyle's famous detective. To accompany the stories, a very talented illustrator named Sidney Paget created an image of Holmes. The image was patterned after the illustrator's brother Walter. This collaboration was to make the magazine, the author, and the artist all world famous over the next decades.
Focusing on his craft
In May 1891 while struggling to serve two masters, (his medical practice and his literary ambitions), Doyle reached a crisis. He was near death from influenza for some days and upon recovering, he determined to serve only one. He abandoned his medical practice to devote himself to his literary work.
Success and setbacks
The next year (1892) saw the birth of Doyle's first son, named Kingsley. The year after that Doyle determined to end his character , terminating what had become an unhappy association. Doyle felt that by killing off Holmes he could finally be free to pursue his more serious work. December 1893 saw the publication of The Final Problem, in which Holmes and his nemesis Professor Moriarty plunged to their deaths at the Reichenbach Falls. The story led to the cancellation of 20,000 subscriptions to the magazine. Doyle, finally free of both his medical practice and his fictional millstone, threw himself into his work even harder. Doyle had become so absorbed in his work that he neglected to notice signs of his wife Louisa's deteriorating health. When he finally did become aware, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Maintaining his writing, he also threw himself into caring for his wife, now his patient. The stresses involved led him into melancholy and a fascination with spiritism. He joined The Society For Psychical Research in 1893. He was in good company as the society had as members the future Prime Minister Arthur Balfour and philosopher William James. Doyle has shown interest in spiritism before, attending a lecture on the subject in 1881. In 1887 an article by Doyle appeared in The Light, a spiritist magazine. In this article Doyle recounted the events of a seance he had attended. In 1889 Doyle attended a lecture on mesmerism. In that lecture the mesmerist (Professor Milo de Mayer) attempted to mesmerize Doyle but failed in the attempt.
Arthur Conan Doyle left for New York in September 1894, accompanied by his younger brother Innes. He was set to lecture in 30 cities, and was very well received. He returned to London in time for Christmas and the publication in Strand Magazine of the first story in his Brigadier Gerard series, which were an instant sensation.
Doyle took his wife Louisa on a trip to Egypt in 1896, hoping the climate might see an improvement in her condition. There he wrote another novel, The Tragedy of the Korosko.
A fateful meeting
Doyle met a strikingly beautiful young woman in 1897 named Jean Leckie. Young Miss Leckie was an intellectual, a sportswoman, and an accomplished singer. Doyle found this combination irresistable. He fell in love with her on first sight, but remained celebate as long as his wife Louisa lived. During this time Doyle wrote a play about his old character Sherlock Holmes. William Gillete, an American actor, asked Doyle if he might make revisions to the character, a move to which Doyle readily agreed. When the revisions were tendered to Doyle, his creation was all but unrecognizable. The changes bothered Doyle not a single whit. The play did well in the US and opened in London's Lyceum Theatre in 1901 where the critics panned it. The public loved it however, and the play was a huge commercial success.
Off to war
When the Boer War started, Doyle suprised friends and family alike by volunteering for service. His offer was declined due to his age and physical condition. Undeterred, he volunteered his services as a physician, which were accepted. He sailed for Africa in February 1900. He saw more men die from disease than from war wounds. He wrote The Great Boer War, a 500 page treatise which was not only a chronicle of that war but a commentary about the shortcomings of the British military organization.
Returning to England both exhausted and disillusioned, Doyle set upon yet another foray. He entered the world of politics, seeking a seat in Edinburgh. He lost by a small margin and returned to London to take up his pen yet again. The inspiration for his next novel came about as a result of an extended stay on the Devonshire moors, also home to Dartmoor Prison. He was treated to local lore about an unfriendly manor, an escaped convict , and a massive ghostly black hound. It occurred to him that the hero didn't need to be a new invention as he had one already. Enter Sherlock Holmes again, the story being relayed as an untold tale rather than as a reintroduction of the character. The first installation of The Hound of the Baskervilles was published in August 1901 in the Strand Magazine to the delight of thousands of fans.
King Edward VII made Doyle a knight in 1902 for his services to the Crown in the Boer War. The king was such a fan of Doyle's character that it is said he entered Doyle's name on the Honors List as a means to influence him to produce more stories. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle must have made the King quite happy as in 1903 the Strand Magazine started the publication of The Return of Sherlock Holmes.
Doyle had a very full life indeed. Looking after his ailing wife, his literary work, exercizing, golf, driving fast cars, flying airplanes, floating aloft in hot air balloons and his clandestine relationship with Jean Leckie kept him busy but still unfulfilled. He had another go at politics in the spring of 1906, where he was again defeated. His wife Louisa died in his arms on July 4, 1906. Doyle entered a profound depression following this event. After some months of this state, Doyle determined to end his misery by helping someone even more miserable than himself. He contacted Scotland Yard concerning a case of justice gone astray, namely the case of one George Edalji who had been convicted of injuring several horses and cows. Observing that Edalji's eyesight was so bad he couldn't have done the crimes of which he was accused, he sought to have the conviction overturned. Due in part to his efforts on behalf of Edalji, 1907 saw the creation of the Court of Criminal Appeal.He performed the same role some years later in the case of Oscar Slater, a German Jew who had been convicted of killing an 82 year old woman..
At long last love
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was wed to his longtime romantic interest Jean Leckie on September 18, 1907 before 250 guests, making public what had heretofore been held so private. Doyle settled with his 2 children and his new wife in Sussex in a home called Windlesham. There he happily engaged in his new wife's interests to the extent his literary output slowed dramatically. Over the next years he had a go at 3 plays, none of which did well. The fourth time proved the charm when he penned a play with his old rescuer Sherlock Holmes. The Speckled Band opened to great reviews and Doyle made lots of money. After finally achieving success with The Speckled Band Doyle ended doing stage work.
Doyle and his wife Jean added to their family with a son named Denis in 1909 and another named Adrian in 1910. They produced a daughter named Jean in 1912. She was to be their last child.
In a couple more years Doyle created another character in The Lost World named Professor Challenger. He was a kind of anti-Holmes, being quite outrageous. The setting was in an unknown area of South America, replete with prehistoric creatures. The new series was another hit for Doyle.
The year 1912 saw the ill-fated ocean liner Titanic sink beneath the cold waters of the North Atlantic on her maiden voyage. The British press of course had a field day reporting the event. They recounted ad nauseum the heroism of the Captain and others aboard as well as the supposed cowardice of others. After some time of this media feeding frenzy noted author George Bernard Shaw weighed in with an article in the Daily News and Leader. The article excoriated the press for indulging in what he termed 'an explosion of outrageous romantic lying'. The article further pointed out that instead of being a hero, Captain Smith was culpable because of his reckless speed in an area prone to iceburgs. Shaw also thought the band's playing might have fostered a false sense of security in the passengers, wasting time that could better have been used getting to the lifeboats. Doyle responded angrily by writing an article rebuffing Shaw's article, questioning his reasoning and saying "it is a pitiful sight to see a man of undoubted genius using his gifts in order to misrepresent and decry his own people". Shaw responded publicly in another article in which he refuted Doyle's arguments. Doyle had one final round to fire before putting that episode to rest, feeling that it could become a never ending argument.
Foreshadows of war
In May 1914 Doyle and his wife traveled to New York. Doyle found it not as charming as it had been 20 years earlier. They found Canada more to their liking, but returned to England shortly probably due to Doyle's fear of an approaching European conflict. When World War I erupted Doyle sought to enlist yet again at the age of 55. He was not accepted for service, but instead founded a civilian volunteer battalion. He contacted the British government with ideas for inflatable life belts, inflatable life boats, and body armor for the troops. Most government contacts treated him as a nuisance but he did receive a thank you letter from Winston Churchill for his efforts. The war was costly to Doyle in a personal sense, causing the loss of a brother, 2 brothers-in-law, 2 nephews, and his own son Kingsley. Doyle saw the publication in late 1914 of His Last Bow, another Sherlock Holmes novel. This helped to erase the lackluster performance of his The Valley of Fear, published earlier that same year.
Retreat into mysticism
Following the war Doyle retreated into his search for spiritism, a pursuit he had always had an intense interest in investigating. His wife, acknowledged to be an educated and levelheaded woman, followed him in these pursuits, going so far as to develop a talent for 'trance writing'. The press turned on him and mocked him while the clergy disapproved of him, but no one could deter him. He gave his first public lecture on spiritism in October 1917, though he knew that his reputation would be damaged. By the end of 1918 he had almost given up fiction to concentrate on writing about spiritism. Harry Price, a dedicated debunker of psychic phenomena, said that the zeal of Doyle was exceeded only by his credulity. The Strand in 1920 published an article by Doyle which contained some amazing photographs. The photos were taken by two young ladies in the Yorkshire village of Cottlingley which purported to be of fairies which inhabited the environs of their home. Doyle had the photos examined by two independant agencies. The first was Kodak who stated that in their opinion the negatives had not been doctored or altered. They further said however that they could also produce similar results and could not therefore state that the photos were in fact genuine. A second investigator named Harold Snelling pronounced the photos genuine. Doyle accepted the statement as indisputable fact and promoted the photos as proof positive for the existence of fairies.
The year 1920 also saw Doyle's introduction to the great magician Harry Houdini. Houdini himself had earlier had an interest in spiritism after his mother's death. He had come to the conclusion that spiritists and mediums were charlatans and set upon a crusade to expose them. Houdini however still had an open mind and hoped to find a genuine medium to aid him in contacting her. Doyle hoped to bring him back into the fold. The two men became friends. In 1922 a seance occurred in which Doyle, Houdini and their wives attended. Doyle's wife Jean produced 15 pages of automatic writing supposedly from Houdini's mother. Houdini questioned the veracity of the documents as they were in English, a language unknown to his mother. The writings failed to mention that the seance occurred on Houdini's mother's birthday, a fact of some significance. Doyle glossed over the discrepencies but Houdini failed to accept these excuses. The relationship experienced a rift which was never healed.
Doyle,along with his wife and family traveled to America, Australia, and Africa in furtherance of his interest in spiritism. Over the years he was to spend over a quarter million pounds following this quest. Finding himself in need of funds, in 1926 Professor Challenger reappeared in The Land of Mist which was followed by 2 other novels. In 1928 Doyle created 12 stories about his famous detective in The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. This was the swansong for the great sleuth's career.
The final act
The fall of 1929 saw Doyle off again on a tour of the Scandinavian countries in promotion of his psychic interests. Afflicted with angina, Doyle had to be carried off the ship upon his return. He was bedridden from that point forward, except for one occasion. In the cold springtime of 1930 he arose from his bed, went unseen into the garden and collapsed. He was found lying on the ground, one hand to his heart, the other holding a single white snowdrop. He died on July 7, 1930, surrounded by his family. His last words were for his wife when he breathed "You are wonderful", and then expired. He is buried in the Church Yard at Minstead in the New Forest, Hampshire, England. A statue in his honor was erected at Crowborough Cross at Crowborough, East Sussex, England. A statue of Sherlock Holmes stands at Picardy Place, Edinburgh, Scotland near the birthplace of the immortal author.
Adventurer, physician, author, playwrite, husband, father, soldier are terms used to describe Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Any one of these would be an accomplishment in its own right, but Doyle wore them all with equal strength. He left a legacy to be envied by all that followed in his footsteps.