Born: 22 May 1859, Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Died: 7 July 1930, Crowborough, United Kingdom
Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle KStJ DL was a British writer and physician who lived from May 22, 1859, to July 7, 1930. In 1887, for A Study in Scarlet, the first of four books and fifty-six short tales about Holmes and Dr. Watson, he invented the character, Sherlock Holmes. In the realm of crime fiction, the Sherlock Holmes stories are considered classics.
Other than Holmes stories, Doyle wrote fantasy and science fiction stories about Professor Challenger and comic stories about Napoleonic soldier Brigadier Gerard, as well as plays, romances, poetry, non-fiction, and historical novels. The mystery of the Mary Celeste was popularised because of one of Doyle’s early short stories, “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement” (1884).
Doyle was born on May 22, 1859, in Edinburgh, Scotland, at 11 Picardy Place. His father, Charles Altamont Doyle, was Irish Catholic and was born in England, while his mother, Mary (née Foley), was also Irish Catholic. In 1855, his parents married. Because of Charles’s developing alcoholism, the family dispersed in 1864, and the children were temporarily accommodated across Edinburgh. While attending Newington Academy, Arthur stayed with Mary Burton, a friend’s aunt, at Liberton Bank House on Gilmerton Road.
The family reunited in 1867, living in dismal tenement lodgings at 3 Sciennes Place. Doyle’s father died in the Crichton Royal, Dumfries, in 1893, after suffering from the psychiatric disease for many years. Doyle began writing letters to his mother at a young age and continued to do so throughout his life, with many of them being saved.
Doyle was moved to England at the age of nine, to the Jesuit preparatory school Hodder Place, Stonyhurst in Lancashire, by affluent aunts. After that, he transferred to Stonyhurst College, where he remained until 1875.
While Doyle was not unhappy at Stonyhurst, he did not have many positive recollections of the school because it was run on medieval principles, with only rudiments, rhetoric, Euclidean geometry, algebra, and the classics covered. Later in his life, Doyle remarked that this academic system could only be justified “because any exercise, however stupid in itself, serves as a kind of mental dumbbell by which one can develop one’s intellect.” He also found the institution to be severe, observing that it prioritized the threat of corporal punishment and ceremonial humiliation over compassion and kindness.
Because of his father’s excesses and erratic behavior, the family had little money and even less harmony. “In his early childhood, as far as he can remember anything at all, the vivid stories she would tell him to stand out so clearly that they obscure the real facts of my life,” Arthur writes in his autobiography, “the vivid stories she would tell me to stand out so clearly that they obscure the real facts of my life.”
Conan Doyle was a medical student when his lecturer, Dr. Joseph Bell, astonished him by his ability to notice even the tiniest detail about a patient’s health. Conan Doyle’s literary invention, Sherlock Holmes, was inspired by this master of diagnostic deduction, who first appeared in A Study in Scarlet, a novel-length fiction published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887. Conan Doyle’s medical studies and experiences are also depicted in his semiautobiographical novels The Firm of Girdlestone (1890) and The Stark Munro Letters (1895), as well as in the collection of medical short stories Round the Red Lamp (1894).
Conan Doyle’s creation of Sherlock Holmes, the “world’s first and only consulting detective,” contrasted dramatically with the paranormal ideas covered in The Mystery of Cloomber, a short novel published at the time (1889). Conan Doyle’s early interest in both scientifically supported evidence and paranormal experiences mirrored the complex opposed views he battled throughout his life.
Conan Doyle continued writing Sherlock Holmes adventures until 1926, driven on by public demand. His short stories were published in various volumes, and he also authored novels featuring Holmes and his companion, Dr. Watson (e.g., The Hound of the Baskervilles, serialized 1901–02).
Conan Doyle, on the other hand, claimed that Holmes’ success overshadowed the merit he believed his other historical fiction deserved, particularly The White Company (1891), Sir Nigel (1906), and the adventures of Napoleonic war hero Brigadier Gerard and 19th-century skeptical scientist Professor George Edward Challenger.
Conan Doyle turned to nonfiction when his passions became too strong. Military writings, such as The Great Boer War (1900) and The British Campaign in France and Flanders, 6 vol. (1916–20), as well as subjects like the Belgian atrocities in the Congo during Leopold II’s reign, as well as his involvement in the actual criminal cases of George Edalji and Oscar Slater, were among his works.
In 1885, Conan Doyle married Louisa Hawkins, and the couple had two children, Mary and Kingsley. He married Jean Leckie a year after Louisa’s death in 1906, and they had three children: Denis, Adrian, and Jean. Conan Doyle was knighted in 1902 for his contributions to a field hospital in Bloemfontein, South Africa, as well as other services provided during the South African (Boer) War.
Conan Doyle considered his most important efforts to be his support for spiritualism, religion, and the subject of psychic research founded on the concept that the spirits of the departed continue to exist in the afterlife and can be contacted by those who are still alive.
Beginning with The New Revelation (1918) and The Vital Message (1919), he committed the majority of his creative labor and revenues to this endeavor later in his life (1919). In The Wanderings of a Spiritualist (1921), Our American Adventure (1923), Our Second American Adventure (1924), and Our African Winter (1925), he detailed his travels in support of the spiritualist cause (1929). In his Case for Spirit Photography (1922), Pheneas Speaks (1927), and a two-volume The History of Spiritualism, he examined various spiritualist themes (1926). Conan Doyle became the world’s most famous proponent of spiritualism, but he encountered strong criticism from the magician Harry Houdini and a dispute with the humanist Joseph McCabe in 1920.
Conan Doyle’s article “The Evidence for Fairies,” published in The Strand Magazine in 1921, and his subsequent book The Coming of the Fairies (1922), in which he voiced support for the claim that two young girls, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, had photographed actual fairies they had seen in the Yorkshire village of Cottingley, faced criticism from spiritualists as well.
Conan Doyle died in Windlesham, Sussex, his home, and his family and members of the spiritualist community rejoiced rather than mourned the event of his passing beyond the veil at his funeral. Thousands of people packed London’s Royal Albert Hall on July 13, 1930, for a séance in which Estelle Roberts, a spiritualist medium, claimed to have communicated with Sir Arthur.
In his autobiography, Memories, and Adventures (1924), Conan Doyle highlighted what he loved most in life, as well as the importance of books for him in Through the Magic Door (1907).
The architectural design was another of Doyle’s lengthy passions. He took an active role in the design process when he commissioned an architect friend, Joseph Henry Ball, to construct a mansion in 1895. Undershaw (near Hindhead, Surrey), where he lived from October 1897 to September 1907, was used as a hotel and restaurant from 1924 until 2004, when it was purchased by a developer and then stood empty as environmentalists and Doyle admirers struggled to preserve it. In 2012, the High Court in London decided in favor of the historic building’s environmentalists, ordering that the redevelopment permission be canceled since it had not been secured following proper procedures. The building was later approved to become part of Stepping Stones, a school for children with disabilities and special needs.
Honors and awards
- Bachelor Knight (1902)
- Knight of Grace of the Most Venerable Order of Saint John of Jerusalem’s Hospital (1903)
- South Africa’s Queen’s Medal (1901)
- Knight of the Italian Crown’s Order (1895)
- Second Class Order of the Medjidie (Ottoman Empire) (1907)
On July 7, 1930, Doyle was discovered clutching his chest in the hall of Windlesham Manor, his home in Crowborough, Sussex. At the age of 71, he died of a heart attack. “You are lovely,” he said in his final words to his wife. Because he was avowedly not a Christian and considered himself a Spiritualist, there was some debate about where he should be buried at the time of his death. On July 11, 1930, he was buried in the Windlesham Rose Garden for the first time.
He was afterward reinterred in Minstead churchyard in the New Forest, Hampshire, with his wife. Carved wooden tablets to his memory and the memory of his wife, originally from the Minstead church, are on display at Portsmouth Museum as part of a Sherlock Holmes exhibition. “Steel true/Blade straight/Arthur Conan Doyle/Knight/Patriot, Physician, and man of books,” says the epitaph on his gravestone in the churchyard.
Doyle is honored by a statue at Crowborough Cross, where he lived for 23 years. In Picardy Place, Edinburgh, there is a statue of Sherlock Holmes near the house where Doyle was born.