The Sherlock Holmes stories are generally considered milestones in the field of crime fiction. Doyle is also known for writing the fictional adventures of Professor Challenger and for propagating 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, wrote, "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.
Doyle was born on 22 May 1859 at 11 Picardy Place, Edinburgh, Scotland. His father, Charles Altamont Doyle, was born in England, of Irish Catholic descent, and his mother, Mary (née Foley), was Irish Catholic. His parents married in 1855. In 1864 the family dispersed because of 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 England, at the Jesuit preparatory school Hodder Place, Stonyhurst in Lancashire 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 became an agnostic. He also later became a spiritualist mystic.
From 1876 to 1881, Doyle 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 a doctor on the Greenland whaler Hope of Peterhead in 1880 and, after his graduation from university in 1881 as M.B., C.M., 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, Doyle 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.
Doyle was a staunch supporter of compulsory vaccination and wrote several articles advocating for the practice and denouncing the views of anti-vaccinators.
In early 1891, Doyle attempted the study of ophthalmology in Vienna. He had previously studied at the Portsmouth Eye Hospital to qualify to perform eye tests and prescribe glasses. Vienna was suggested by his friend Vernon Morris as a place to spend six months and train to be an eye surgeon. Doyle, however, found it too difficult to understand the German medical terms at the classes in Vienna and quickly quit his studies there. For the rest of his two-month stay in Vienna, he pursued other activities, such as ice skating with his wife Louisa and drinking with Brinsley Richards of the London Times. He also wrote The Doings of Raffles Haw. After visiting Venice and Milan, he spent a few days in Paris observing Edmund Landolt, an expert on diseases of the eye. Within three months of his departure for Vienna, Doyle returned to London. He opened a small office and consulting room 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). He never saw a single patient, according to his autobiography, and his efforts as an ophthalmologist were a failure.
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 more common 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 in boxing; The Speckled Band, after the short story "The Adventure of the Speckled Band"; and the 1893 collaboration with J.M. Barrie on the libretto of Jane Annie.
While living in Southsea, Doyle played football as a goalkeeper for Portsmouth Association Football Club, an amateur side, under the pseudonym A. C. Smith.
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 as 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 Jean Leckie, his second wife, and resided there with his family from 1907 until his death in July 1930.)
In 1885 Doyle married Louisa (sometimes called "Touie") Hawkins. She was the youngest daughter of J. Hawkins, of Minsterworth, Gloucestershire, and the sister of one of Doyle's patients. Louisa 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 had an additional 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 stood for Parliament twice 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. Doyle was appointed a Knight of Grace of the Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem in 1903.
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 after 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. He was 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.
Also in Southsea in 1887, influenced by a member of the Portsmouth Literary and Philosophical Society, Major-General Alfred Wilks Drayson, he began a series of psychic investigations. These included attending around 20 seances, experiments in telepathy and sittings with mediums. Writing to Spiritualist journal Light, that year, he declared himself to be a Spiritualist and spoke of one particular psychic event that had convinced him.
Though he later wavered, he remained fascinated by the paranormal. He was a founding member of the Hampshire Society for Psychical Research in 1889 and joined the London-based Society for Psychical Research in 1893. He joined Sir Sidney Scott and Frank Podmore on a poltergeist investigation in Devon in 1894. Nevertheless, during this period, he remained, in essence, a dilettante.
At the height of the Great War, in 1916, a change came over Conan Doyle's beliefs, prompted by the apparent psychic abilities of his children's nanny, Lily Loder Symonds. This, combined with the deaths he saw around him, made him rationalise that Spiritualism was a "New Revelation" sent by God to bring solace to the bereaved. The New Revelation was the title of his first Spiritualist work, published two years later. In the intervening years, he wrote to Light magazine about his faith and lectured frequently on the truth of Spiritualism.
War-related deaths close to him certainly strengthened his long-held belief in life after death and spirit communication, though it is wrong to claim that the death of his son, Kingsley, turned him to Spiritualism, as is often stated. Doyle came out as a Spiritualist to the public in 1916, a full two years before his son's death. It was on 28 October 1918 that Kingsley died from pneumonia contracted during his convalescence after being seriously wounded in the 1916 Battle of the Somme. Doyle's brother Brigadier-general Innes Doyle died, also from pneumonia, in February 1919. His two brothers-in-law (one of whom was E. W. Hornung, creator of the literary character Raffles) and his two nephews also died shortly after the war. His second book on Spiritualism, The Vital Message, appeared in 1919.
Doyle 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.
In 1919, the magician P. T. Selbit staged a séance at his own flat in Bloomsbury. Doyle attended the séance. Some later commentators have stated that he declared the clairvoyance manifestations to be genuine. However, the contemporary report by the Sunday Express quotes Doyle as saying: "I should have to see it again before passing a definite opinion on it," and: "I have my doubts about the whole thing". 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 believed that many cases of diagnosed mental illness were the result of spirit possession. He debated with the psychiatrist Harold Dearden on the subject who was diametrically opposed to Doyle's views. He travelled to Australia and New Zealand on Spiritualist missionary work in 1920, and continued his mission all the way up to his death, speaking about his Spiritualist conviction in Britain, Europe and the USA.
Doyle was also inspired by his Spiritualist beliefs to write a novella on the subject, The Land of Mist, featuring the character Professor Challenger. He wrote many other non-fictional Spiritualist works; perhaps his most famous being The Coming of the Fairies (1922) which reveals Conan Doyle's conviction in 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).
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 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 materialisations produced by Eusapia Palladino and Mina Crandon, who were both exposed as frauds.
In 1926, Robert John Tillyard wrote a predominantly supportive review of Doyle's book The History of Spiritualism in the journal Nature. This caused controversy, and several critics such as A. A. Campbell Swinton pointed to the evidence of fraud in mediumship and Doyle's non-scientific approach to the subject. 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 commissioned a newly-built home from Joseph Henry Ball, an architect friend, in 1895, and played an active part of the design process. He lived in Undershaw which is near Hindhead in Surrey from October 1897 to September 1907. It was a hotel and restaurant from 1924 until 2004, when it was bought by a developer and stood empty while conservationists and Doyle fans fought to preserve it. In 2012, the High Court in London 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.
Doyle was staying at the Lyndhurst Grand Hotel during March 1912 and made his most ambitious foray into architecture: sketching the original designs for a third storey extension and altering the front facade to the building. Work began later that year and the building as it is today is a near perfect expression of Doyle's plans.
In 1914, on a family trip to the Jasper National Park in Canada, he designed a golf course and ancillary buildings for a hotel. The plans were realised in full, but neither the golf course or the buildings have survived.
In 1926, Doyle laid the foundation stone for a Spiritualist temple in Camden, London. Of the building's total £600 construction costs, he provided £500.
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)
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. 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".
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.