Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle KStJ, DL (22 May 1859 – 7 July 1930) was a Scottish writer and physician, most noted for creating the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes and writing stories about him which are generally considered milestones in the field of crime fiction.
He is also known for writing the fictional adventures of a second character he invented, Professor Challenger, and for popularising the mystery of the Mary Celeste. He was a prolific writer whose other works include fantasy and science fiction stories, plays, romances, poetry, non-fiction and historical novels.
Doyle is often referred to as "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle" or simply "Conan Doyle" (implying that Conan is part of a compound surname, as opposed to his given middle name). His baptism entry in the register of St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh gives "Arthur Ignatius Conan" as his given names, and "Doyle" as his surname. It also names Michael Conan as his godfather. The cataloguers of the British Library and the Library of Congress treat "Doyle" alone as his surname.
Steven Doyle, editor of the Baker Street Journal, has written: "Conan was Arthur's middle name. Shortly after he graduated from high school he began using Conan as a sort of surname. But technically his last name is simply 'Doyle'." When knighted, he was gazetted as Doyle, not under the compound Conan Doyle. Nevertheless, the actual use of a compound surname is demonstrated by the fact that Doyle's second wife was known as "Jean Conan Doyle" rather than "Jean Doyle".
Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born on 22 May 1859 at 11 Picardy Place, Edinburgh, Scotland. His father, Charles Altamont Doyle, was English, of Irish Catholic descent, and his mother, Mary (née Foley), was Irish Catholic. His parents married in 1855. In 1864 the family dispersed due to Charles's growing alcoholism and the children were temporarily housed across Edinburgh. In 1867, the family came together again and lived in squalid tenement flats at 3 Sciennes Place. Doyle's father died in 1893, in the Crichton Royal, Dumfries, after many years of psychiatric illness.
Supported by wealthy uncles, Doyle was sent to the Jesuit preparatory school Hodder Place, Stonyhurst, at the age of nine (1868–70). He then went on to Stonyhurst College until 1875. From 1875 to 1876, he was educated at the Jesuit school Stella Matutina in Feldkirch, Austria. He later rejected the Catholic faith and become an agnostic. He also later became a spiritualist mystic.
From 1876 to 1881 he studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, including periods working in Aston (then a town in Warwickshire, now part of Birmingham), Sheffield and Ruyton-XI-Towns, Shropshire. During that time he studied practical botany at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. While studying, Doyle began writing short stories. His earliest extant fiction, "The Haunted Grange of Goresthorpe", was unsuccessfully submitted to Blackwood's Magazine. His first published piece, "The Mystery of Sasassa Valley", a story set in South Africa, was printed in Chambers's Edinburgh Journal on 6 September 1879. On 20 September 1879, he published his first academic article, "Gelsemium as a Poison" in the British Medical Journal, a study which the Daily Telegraph regarded as potentially useful in a 21st-century alleged murder investigation.
Doyle was employed as a doctor on the Greenland whaler Hope of Peterhead in 1880 and, after his graduation from university in 1881 as M.B., C.M., as a ship's surgeon on the SS Mayumba during a voyage to the West African coast. He completed his M.D. degree (an advanced degree in Scotland beyond the usual medical degrees) on the subject of tabes dorsalis in 1885.
In 1882 he joined former classmate George Turnavine Budd as his partner at a medical practice in Plymouth, but their relationship proved difficult, and Doyle soon left to set up an independent practice. Arriving in Portsmouth in June 1882 with less than £10 (£900 today) to his name, he set up a medical practice at 1 Bush Villas in Elm Grove, Southsea. The practice was initially not very successful. While waiting for patients, Doyle again began writing fiction.
In 1890 Doyle studied ophthalmology in Vienna, and moved to London, first living in Montague Place and then in South Norwood. He set up a practice as an ophthalmologist at No. 2 Upper Wimpole St, London W1 (then known as 2 Devonshire Place). (A Westminster Council plaque in place over the front door can be seen today.)
Doyle struggled to find a publisher for his work. His first work featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, A Study in Scarlet, was taken by Ward Lock & Co on 20 November 1886, giving Doyle £25 (£2500 today) for all rights to the story. The piece appeared one year later in the Beeton's Christmas Annual and received good reviews in The Scotsman and the Glasgow Herald.
Holmes was partially modelled on his former university teacher Joseph Bell. In 1892, in a letter to Bell, Doyle wrote, "It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes ... round the centre of deduction and inference and observation which I have heard you inculcate I have tried to build up a man." and, in his 1924 autobiography, he remarked, "It is no wonder that after the study of such a character [viz., Bell] I used and amplified his methods when in later life I tried to build up a scientific detective who solved cases on his own merits and not through the folly of the criminal. Robert Louis Stevenson was able, even in faraway Samoa, to recognise the strong similarity between Joseph Bell and Sherlock Holmes: "My compliments on your very ingenious and very interesting adventures of Sherlock Holmes. ... can this be my old friend Joe Bell?" Other authors sometimes suggest additional influences—for instance, the famous Edgar Allan Poe character C. Auguste Dupin. Dr. (John) Watson owes his surname, but not any other obvious characteristic, to a Portsmouth medical colleague of Doyle's, Dr James Watson.
A sequel to A Study in Scarlet was commissioned and The Sign of the Four appeared in Lippincott's Magazine in February 1890, under agreement with the Ward Lock company. Doyle felt grievously exploited by Ward Lock as an author new to the publishing world and he left them. Short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes were published in the Strand Magazine. Doyle wrote the first five Holmes short stories from his office at 2 Upper Wimpole Street (then known as Devonshire Place), which is now marked by a memorial plaque.
Doyle's attitude towards his most famous creation was ambivalent. In November 1891 he wrote to his mother: "I think of slaying Holmes,... and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things." His mother responded, "You won't! You can't! You mustn't!" In an attempt to deflect publishers' demands for more Holmes stories, he raised his price to a level intended to discourage them, but found they were willing to pay even the large sums he asked. As a result, he became one of the best-paid authors of his time.
In December 1893, to dedicate more of his time to his historical novels, Doyle had Holmes and Professor Moriarty plunge to their deaths together down the Reichenbach Falls in the story "The Final Problem". Public outcry, however, led him to feature Holmes in 1901 in the novel The Hound of the Baskervilles.
In 1903, Doyle published his first Holmes short story in ten years, The Adventure of the Empty House, in which it was explained that only Moriarty had fallen; but since Holmes had other dangerous enemies—especially Colonel Sebastian Moran—he had arranged to also be perceived as dead. Holmes was ultimately featured in a total of 56 short stories—the last published in 1927—and four novels by Doyle, and has since appeared in many novels and stories by other authors.
Jane Stanford compares some of Moriarty's characteristics to those of the Fenian John O'Connor Power. 'The Final Problem' was published the year the Second Home Rule Bill passed through the House of Commons. 'The Valley of Fear' was serialised in 1914, the year Home Rule, the Government of Ireland Act (18 September) was placed on the Statute Book.
Doyle's first novels were The Mystery of Cloomber, not published until 1888, and the unfinished Narrative of John Smith, published only in 2011. He amassed a portfolio of short stories including "The Captain of the Pole-Star" and "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement", both inspired by Doyle's time at sea. The latter popularised the mystery of the Mary Celeste and added fictional details such as the perfect condition of the ship (which had actually taken on water by the time it was discovered) and its boats remaining on board (the one boat was in fact missing) that have come to dominate popular accounts of the incident. Doyle's spelling of the ship's name as Marie Celeste has become commoner in everyday use than the original form.
Between 1888 and 1906, Doyle wrote seven historical novels, which he and many critics regarded as his best work. He also authored nine other novels, and later in his career (1912–29) five stories, two of novella length, featuring the irascible scientist Professor Challenger. The Challenger stories include what is probably his best-known work after the Holmes oeuvre, The Lost World. He was a prolific author of short stories, including two collections set in Napoleonic times featuring the French character Brigadier Gerard.
Doyle's stage works include Waterloo, the reminiscences of an English veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, the character of Gregory Brewster being written for Henry Irving; The House of Temperley, the plot of which reflects his abiding interest of boxing; The Speckled Band, after the short story of that name; and the 1893 collaboration with J.M. Barrie on the libretto of Jane Annie.
Doyle was known as Spiritualism's Ambassador, a passion that was started in 1873 when he joined the Society of Psychical Research. His passion for Spiritualism is reflected in his writing during the latter part of his life. Nineteen of Sir Arthur's over sixty books are about Spiritualism. They include: The New Revelation (1918), Life After Death (1918), The Vital Message (1919), Spiritualism and Rationalism (1920), The Wanderings of a Spiritualist (1921),The Coming of the Fairies (1922), The Case for Spirit Photography (1922), Our American Adventure (1923), Our Second American Adventure (1924), Spiritualist's Reader (1924), Memories and Adventures (1924), The Early Christian Church and Modern Spiritualism (1925), The Land of Mist (1926, fiction), The History of Spiritualism, in two volumes (1926),Pheneas Speaks. Direct Spirit Communication in the Family Circle (1927), Our African Winter (1929), The Edge of the Unknown (1930).
While living in Southsea, Doyle played football as a goalkeeper for Portsmouth Association Football Club, an amateur side, under the pseudonym A. C. Smith. (This club, disbanded in 1896, has no connection with the present-day Portsmouth F.C., which was founded in 1898.) Doyle was a keen cricketer, and between 1899 and 1907 he played 10 first-class matches for the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC). He also played for the amateur cricket team the Allahakbarries alongside authors J. M. Barrie and A. A. Milne.
His highest score, in 1902 against London County, was 43. He was an occasional bowler who took just one first-class wicket (although one of the highest pedigree—it was W. G. Grace). Also a keen golfer, Doyle was elected captain of the Crowborough Beacon Golf Club in Sussex for 1910. (He had moved to Little Windlesham house in Crowborough with his second wife, Jean Leckie, living there with his family from 1907 until his death in July 1930.)
In 1885 Doyle married Mary Louise (sometimes called "Touie") Hawkins, the youngest daughter of J. Hawkins, of Minsterworth, Gloucestershire, and sister of one of Doyle's patients. She suffered from tuberculosis and died on 4 July 1906. The following year he married Jean Elizabeth Leckie, whom he had first met and fallen in love with in 1897. He had maintained a platonic relationship with Jean while his first wife was still alive, out of loyalty to her. Jean died in London on 27 June 1940.
Doyle fathered five children. He had two with his first wife: Mary Louise (28 January 1889 – 12 June 1976) and Arthur Alleyne Kingsley, known as Kingsley (15 November 1892 – 28 October 1918). He also had three with his second wife: Denis Percy Stewart (17 March 1909 – 9 March 1955), second husband of Georgian Princess Nina Mdivani; Adrian Malcolm (19 November 1910 – 3 June 1970); and Jean Lena Annette (21 December 1912 – 18 November 1997).
Following the Boer War in South Africa at the turn of the 20th century and the condemnation from some quarters over the United Kingdom's role, Doyle wrote a short work titled The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct, which argued that the UK's role in the Boer War was justified, and which was widely translated. Doyle had served as a volunteer doctor in the Langman Field Hospital at Bloemfontein between March and June 1900. Doyle believed that this publication was responsible for his being knighted as a Knight Bachelor by King Edward VII in 1902 and for his appointment as a Deputy-Lieutenant of Surrey. Also in 1900 he wrote a book, The Great Boer War.
He twice stood for Parliament as a Liberal Unionist—in 1900 in Edinburgh Central and in 1906 in the Hawick Burghs—but although he received a respectable vote, he was not elected. In May 1903 he was appointed a Knight of Grace of the Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem.
Doyle was a supporter of the campaign for the reform of the Congo Free State, led by the journalist E. D. Morel and diplomat Roger Casement. During 1909 he wrote The Crime of the Congo, a long pamphlet in which he denounced the horrors of that colony. He became acquainted with Morel and Casement, and it is possible that, together with Bertram Fletcher Robinson, they inspired several characters in the 1912 novel The Lost World. Doyle broke with Robinson when he became one of the leaders of the pacifist movement during the First World War. When Casement was found guilty of treason against the Crown during the Easter Rising, Doyle tried unsuccessfully to save him from facing the death penalty, arguing that Casement had been driven mad and could not be held responsible for his actions.
Doyle was also a fervent advocate of justice and personally investigated two closed cases, which led to two men being exonerated of the crimes of which they were accused. The first case, in 1906, involved a shy half-British, half-Indian lawyer named George Edalji who had allegedly penned threatening letters and mutilated animals in Great Wyrley. Police were set on Edalji's conviction, even though the mutilations continued after their suspect was jailed. Apart from helping George Edalji, Doyle's work helped establish a way to correct other miscarriages of justice, as it was partially as a result of this case that the Court of Criminal Appeal was established in 1907.
The story of Doyle and Edalji was dramatised in an episode of the 1972 BBC television series, The Edwardians. In Nicholas Meyer's pastiche The West End Horror (1976), Holmes manages to help clear the name of a shy Parsi Indian character wronged by the English justice system. Edalji was of Parsi heritage on his father's side. The story was fictionalised in Julian Barnes's 2005 novel Arthur and George, which was adapted into a three-part drama by ITV in 2015.
The second case, that of Oscar Slater, a Yekke and gambling-den operator convicted of bludgeoning an 82-year-old woman in Glasgow in 1908, excited Doyle's curiosity because of inconsistencies in the prosecution case and a general sense that Slater was not guilty. He ended up paying most of the costs for Slater's successful appeal in 1928.
Doyle had a longstanding interest in mystical subjects. In 1887 he joined the Society for Psychical Research and was also initiated as a Freemason (26 January 1887) at the Phoenix Lodge No. 257 in Southsea. He resigned from the Lodge in 1889, but returned to it in 1902, only to resign again in 1911.
Following the death of his wife Louisa in 1906, the death of his son Kingsley just before the end of the First World War, and the deaths of his brother Innes, his two brothers-in-law (one of whom was E. W. Hornung, creator of the literary character Raffles) and his two nephews shortly after the war, Doyle sank into depression. He found solace supporting spiritualism and its attempts to find proof of existence beyond the grave. In particular, according to some, he favoured Christian Spiritualism and encouraged the Spiritualists' National Union to accept an eighth precept – that of following the teachings and example of Jesus of Nazareth. He was a member of the renowned supernatural organisation The Ghost Club.
On 28 October 1918, Kingsley Doyle died from pneumonia, which he contracted during his convalescence after being seriously wounded during the 1916 Battle of the Somme. Brigadier-General Innes Doyle died, also from pneumonia, in February 1919. Sir Arthur became involved with Spiritualism to the extent that he wrote a novella on the subject, The Land of Mist, featuring the character Professor Challenger. The Coming of the Fairies (1922) appears to show that Conan Doyle was convinced of the veracity of the five Cottingley Fairies photographs. He reproduced them in the book, together with theories about the nature and existence of fairies and spirits. Initially suspected of being falsified, the photos were decades later determined to be faked (along with admissions from the photographers).
In 1919, the magician P. T. Selbit staged a séance at his own flat in Bloomsbury. Doyle attended the séance and declared the clairvoyance manifestations to be genuine. In 1920, Doyle debated the claims of Spiritualism with the notable sceptic Joseph McCabe at Queen's Hall in London. McCabe later published his evidence against the claims of Doyle and Spiritualism in a booklet entitled Is Spiritualism Based on Fraud? which claimed Doyle had been duped into believing Spiritualism by mediumship trickery.
Doyle was friends for a time with Harry Houdini, the American magician who himself became a prominent opponent of the Spiritualist movement in the 1920s following the death of his beloved mother. Although Houdini insisted that Spiritualist mediums employed trickery (and consistently exposed them as frauds), Doyle became convinced that Houdini himself possessed supernatural powers—a view expressed in Doyle's The Edge of the Unknown. Houdini was apparently unable to convince Doyle that his feats were simply illusions, leading to a bitter public falling out between the two. A specific incident is recounted in memoirs by Houdini's friend Bernard M. L. Ernst, in which Houdini performed an impressive trick at his home in the presence of Conan Doyle. Houdini assured Conan Doyle the trick was pure illusion and that he was attempting to prove a point about Doyle not "endorsing phenomena" simply because he had no explanation. According to Ernst, Conan Doyle refused to believe it was a trick.
In 1922, the psychical researcher Harry Price accused the spirit photographer William Hope of fraud. Doyle defended Hope, but further evidence of trickery was obtained from other researchers. Doyle threatened to have Price evicted from the National Laboratory of Psychical Research and claimed if he persisted to write "sewage" about spiritualists, he would meet the same fate as Harry Houdini. Price wrote "Arthur Conan Doyle and his friends abused me for years for exposing Hope." Because of the exposure of Hope and other fraudulent spiritualists, Doyle led a mass resignation of eighty-four members of the Society for Psychical Research, as they believed the Society was opposed to spiritualism.
Doyle and spiritualist William Thomas Stead were duped into believing Julius and Agnes Zancig had genuine psychic powers, both claiming that the Zancigs used telepathy. In 1924 Julius and Agnes Zancig confessed that that their mind reading act was a trick and published the secret code and all the details of the trick method they had used, under the title Our Secrets!! in a London newspaper. In his book The History of Spiritualism (1926), Doyle praised the psychic phenomena and spirit materializations produced by Eusapia Palladino and Mina Crandon, who were both exposed as frauds. In 1927, Doyle spoke in a filmed interview about Sherlock Holmes and spiritualism.
Richard Milner, an American historian of science, has presented a case that Doyle may have been the perpetrator of the Piltdown Man hoax of 1912, creating the counterfeit hominid fossil that fooled the scientific world for over 40 years. Milner says that Doyle had a motive—namely, revenge on the scientific establishment for debunking one of his favourite psychics—and that The Lost World contains several encrypted clues regarding his involvement in the hoax. Samuel Rosenberg's 1974 book Naked is the Best Disguise purports to explain how, throughout his writings, Doyle left open clues that related to hidden and suppressed aspects of his mentality.
Doyle was found clutching his chest in the hall of Windlesham Manor, his house in Crowborough, East Sussex, on 7 July 1930. He died of a heart attack at the age of 71. His last words were directed toward his wife: "You are wonderful." At the time of his death, there was some controversy concerning his burial place, as he was avowedly not a Christian, considering himself a Spiritualist. He was first buried on 11 July 1930 in Windlesham rose garden.
He was later reinterred together with his wife in Minstead churchyard in the New Forest, Hampshire. Carved wooden tablets to his memory and to the memory of his wife, originally from the church at Minstead, are on display as part of a Sherlock Holmes exhibition at Portsmouth Museum. That inscription reads, "Blade straight/Steel true/Arthur Conan Doyle/Born May 22nd 1859/Passed on 7th July 1930."
The epitaph on his gravestone in the churchyard reads, in part: "Steel true/Blade straight/Arthur Conan Doyle/Knight/Patriot, Physician, and man of letters".
Undershaw, the home near Hindhead, Haslemere, which Doyle had built and lived in between October 1897 and September 1907, was a hotel and restaurant from 1924 until 2004. It was then bought by a developer and stood empty while conservationists and Doyle fans fought to preserve it. In 2012 the High Court ruled the redevelopment permission be quashed because proper procedure had not been followed, but it is now due to become part of the Stepping Stones school for children with disabilities and additional needs.
A statue honours Doyle at Crowborough Cross in Crowborough, where he lived for 23 years. There is a statue of Sherlock Holmes in Picardy Place, Edinburgh, close to the house where Doyle was born.
Honours and awards
- Knight Bachelor (1902)
- Knight of Grace of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem (1903)
- Queen's South Africa Medal (1901)
- Knight of the Order of the Crown of Italy (1895)
- Order of the Medjidie - 2nd Class (Ottoman Empire) (1907)