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22 May 1859, Edinburgh M.D., Kt, D.L., LL.D., Sportsman, Writer, Poet, Politician, Justicer, Spiritualist Crowborough, 7 July 1930

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:Biography

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Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle, M.D., Kt, D.L., LL.D., (22 may 1859 - 7 july 1930) was a British writer with many facets : Physician, Writer, Sportsman, Poet, Politician, Justicer, Spiritualist, Campaigner, Adventurer...

See also A Life in Pictures and A Life in Movies.


Arthur Conan Doyle was born on 22 may 1859, at Picardy Place, Edinburgh, Scotland. His mother, Mary Foley, was Irish and descendant of the famous Percy family of Northumberland, in the line of Plantagenet. His father, Charles Altamont Doyle, was a not very ambitious officer with some artistic talent [1]. When he lost his job, he sank into alcoholism and was interned after severe seizures before dying in 1893. The three brothers of his father distinguished themselves in England: James wrote The Chronicles of England, Henry was director of the National Gallery in Dublin and Richard was one of the most famous illustrators of Punch.

Arthur is the second of seven children (Annette Constance, Caroline, Innes, Ida and Julia). His education begins at home and in a small Edinburgh school. At nine, he entered the Jesuit college Hodder in Lancashire to prepare his admission to the Stonyhurst College. He succeeded two years later and already starting to get excited about literature : Walter Scott, Jules Verne or Macaulay. He even founded a little magazine : The Stonyhurst Figaro. However, Jesuit education hardly suited him and when he left school in 1875, he completely rejected Christianity, preferring to be agnostic. Nevertheless, he spent an additional year at a Jesuit college in Feldkirch, Austria, to improve his German. In 1876, he began his medical studies at the Faculty of Edinburgh.

There he met two men who influence the choice of his future novel hero: Professor Rutherford, whose Assyrian beard, booming voice and broad chest, inspire him Professor George Edward Challenger [2] and Dr. Joseph Bell, Professor of Surgery, whose amazing deductions on his patients and their diseases did germinate the idea of a detective using the same methods.

Alongside his studies, Arthur tries to win some money to help her family. He worked as medical assistant in Sheffield, Birmingham and Shropshire and doctor aboard a whaling in Greenland. In 1879, two of his short stories are published anonymously (The Mystery of Sasassa Valley and The American's Tale).

22 october 1881, he graduated and enlisted as a doctor aboard a steamer to Western Africa. The voyage which proves unpleasant because of a storm and a fire on board, Conan Doyle became seriously ill (probably malaria) in Lagos. He decides to exercise his talents more peacefully. After a brief partnership in 1882, with a crooked colleague, he opened a practice of ophthalmology in Southsea, near Portsmouth. His clientele leaves him plenty of time to read, write and try to publish other short stories but without success.

In august 1885, he married Louisa Hawkins ("Touie"), the sister of one of his rare patients. She gave him two children (Mary Louise and Kingsley) and strongly encouraged him to persevere in literature. He followed his advice because in 1886 he finished his first novel The Firm of Girdlestone, but failed to find a publisher (it will be serialized in 1889-1890 in People magazine).

In 1887, he wrote his first Sherlock Holmes adventure, A Study in Scarlet. The manuscript was rejected by several publishers before Ward, Lock & Co. bought it for the paltry sum of £25. They published it in their Beeton's Christmas Annual in november 1887 and was completely unnoticed. But the young author, disciple of Walter Scott, is already working on historical novels (the kind he considered the only worthy of his vocation) like Micah Clarke (published in 1889). Having some success, he devours the chroniclers of the Middle Ages as Froissart and Philippe Commynes. As a result, he wrote The White Company (published in 1891). With this latest novel, which is a somewhat idealized description of English chivalry, Conan Doyle was proud to give England a second Ivanhoe.

In august 1889, during a dinner hosted by J. M. Stoddart, an American agent of the Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde are hired to write two stories. Published in 1890, Wilde wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray and Conan Doyle The Sign of Four, the second adventure of the detective. The same year, the Conan Doyles stayed a few months in Vienna for Arthur to improve his medical knowledge. Back in England, they moved to London on Montague Place and the young doctor's office opens at 2 Devonshire Place. Patients are still scarce, Conan Doyle took up the pen again.

In january 1891, discovering the first issue of The Strand Magazine, he decided to write and propose new adventures of the detective, including A Scandal in Bohemia and The Red-Headed League. He then provided five other short stories and renewed his contract for six additional stories at the rate of one per month [3]. The success was stunning. He abandoned medicine and devoted himself entirely to writing. Nevertheless, he wanted his name remain associated with more literary works and in november 1891 he wrote to his mother : "I plan to kill Holmes in the sixth aventure. He prevents me from thinking to better things." Mrs Doyle then starts effort to find him plots [4] and thanks to his supplications, Sherlock Holmes got a reprieve.

Doyle moved in december 1892 in Davos, Switzerland, where the air is healthier for his wife suffering from tuberculosis. Not far away are the Reichenbach Falls, gorgeous, magnificent and terrifying framework conducive to a dramatic end. After a series of twelve new adventures [5], Holmes died there, resulted in a fall into the abyss by Professor Moriarty (The Adventure of the Final Problem). Despite fierce public outcry, and his mother, Conan Doyle refused to resurrect his detective.

A new life begins. In 1894, he gave a series of lectures in the United States and is received by Rudyard Kipling in Vermont. He also corresponds with Robert Louis Stevenson which told him he was telling the Sherlock Holmes stories to the Samoan natives. The same year, his play A Story of Waterloo is performed in London with Henry Irving at the Lyceum.

In Davos, he gives a demonstration of ski which he has discovered in Norway during a previous trip [6]. This is the first time that such "snow shoes" are introduced in the Alps. There, he also wrote The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard (first novel in the saga of the soldier of the First Empire) and Rodney Stone (a novel about boxing). During the fall of 1895, in order to improve the health of his wife, Conan Doyle stayed in Cairo for several months. When the conflict between the British and the dervishes was growing seriously, he became a war correspondent for the Westminster Gazette. These events inspired the novel The Tragedy of the Korosko.

In october 1899, war broke out between England and African Orange and Transvaal Republics in South Africa. Conan Doyle engaged in december. Unfortunately, the Middlesex Yeomanry Regiment put him on a waiting list. Meanwhile, a friend, John Langman, who wishes to raise a fifty hospital beds in South Africa, offers him to supervise the operation. From march 1900, he led the hospital in Bloemfontein, capital of the Orange state, until august 1901. In october 1900, he ran for election in Edinburgh for MP, in favor of retaining Ireland within the United Kingdom. But was defeated.

On his return to England, he wrote two books: The Great Boer War (1901) and The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct (1902). The latter was virulent against those who accused the English of abusing the Boers (rapes, use of dum-dum bullets...). This position, rather than his participation in the conflict earned him the title of Knight of Grace of the Order of St John of Jerusalem. He was from then: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Sherlock Holmes then makes his return. The Hound of the Baskervilles is serialized between august 1901 and may 1902 in The Strand Magazine. But it is an adventure which takes place shortly before the death of the detective. It was only in 1903 that an American publisher convinced Conan Doyle to resurrect the detective, by offering him a large sum of money. Then, thirty-three new stories will be published between september 1903 (The Adventure of the Empty House) and march 1927 (The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place) [7].

In january 1906, Sir Arthur ran for elections (always Unionist so conservative) and suffered another defeat. The health of his wife Louisa suddenly worsen. Tumor occured and caused partial paralysis. She gradually weakened and died on 4 july 1906. This drama plunged him into a state of prostration near depression.

He then launched headlong into the George Edalji case, ayoung notary Indian origin, sentenced to seven years of prison for sending anonymous letters and mutilating cattle. In the manner of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle lead his own investigation and proved his innocence.

In september 1907, Conan Doyle married Jean Elizabeth Leckie with whom he was in love since 1897 but always maintained a friendly relationship of respect for his wife. He moved to Crowborough in Sussex, where Jean gave him three children (Denis, Adrian and Jean).

Two years later, the public discovers the crimes committed in Congo by the Belgian administration. Conan Doyle decided to take action at the international level by publishing: The Crime of the Congo and sending several articles in newspapers and correspondence with the President of the United States and the Emperor of Germany. All means were good to stop these crimes, which in twenty years, did more than a century of slavery victims across Africa.

Conan Doyle intervened in 1910 to restore the truth in the Oscar Slater case, a German Jew accused of murder and sentenced to death. He noted serious irregularities in the police investigation. Convinced of the innocence of the man, he sought to prove it. he didn't succeed completely but managed to commute the death sentence to life imprisonment [8].

Professor Challenger (illustration by Conan Doyle himself)

In 1912, Conan Doyle created a new character that will mark the literary world: the Professor Challenger in the novel: The Lost World.

When World War I broke out in 1914, Conan Doyle formed a local volunteer unit that would later become officially The Crowborough Company of the 6th Royal Sussex Volunteer Regiment, where he served as second class. But when he wanted to go to the front, this "privilege" was refused due to his advanced age (55 years-old). So he put his pen to the service of his country and publishes a pamphlet entitled To Arms!. Throughout the war, he wrote carefully the history of the Great War day by day [9]. For this, he was directly communicating with generals on the battlefield. In 1916, he visited the English, Italian and French fronts and even met Clemenceau. The same year, his eldest son, Kingsley, was seriously wounded at the Battle of the Somme. He died of pneumonia in october 1918. The following february, his brother, Innes (Brigadier General) died the same way.

Also in 1916, Conan Doyle intervened to obtain the grace of Sir Roger Casement, a leader of the Irish insurgents who joined the germans. Despite all his efforts the writer can not save him. Accused of treason, Sir Roger Casement is executed.

In october 1916, Conan Doyle announced in the journal Light his conversion to spiritualism. During the last years of his life, he became the "crusader" of this movement that preaches salvation of humanity through science.

Thus, from 1920 to 1923, he gave a series of lectures about spiritualism in Australia, in USA and in Canada. He published his autobiography, Memories and Adventures in 1924 and opened a spiritualism bookstore, The Psychic Bookshop in London, where he handled the editing of his own works. In particular he published The History of Spiritualism in two volumes and The Land of Mist , the latest adventure of Professor Challenger on a spiritualism theme.

He spends more time on conferences: in Paris, the International Spiritualist Congress in 1925, in London, the Congress he chaired in 1928, and then in South Africa, Rhodesia, Kenya, Holland, and the Scandinavian countries. After these trips, in 1929, exhausted, he suffered a heart attack. Nevertheless, against the advice of his doctors, he insisted on speaking at a ceremony commemorating the Armistice, then spent weeks in bed. He is recovering slowly but on 7 july 1930 at dawn, he died from a final heart attack.

Published Biographies

  1. Probably inherited from his father John Doyle, the famous cartoonist "HB". Charles Altamont Doyle was one of the first to illustrate the investigations of Sherlock Holmes. There are six of his drawings in A Study in Scarlet published in 1888 (Ward, Lock & Co.) where Holmes is shown bearded.
  2. The Lost World, The Poison Belt and The Land of Mist.
  3. The twelve new stories will be collected later in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
  4. She proposed, for example, the plot of The Adventure of the Copper Beeches.
  5. From december 1892 to december 1893. The stories will be collected later in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.
  6. In 1892, the Conan Doyles spent their holidays there with Jerome K. Jerome, author of Three Men on a boat.
  7. Stories collected in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, His Last Bow and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. Plus the novel: The Valley of Fear.
  8. The innocence of Slater will be recognized in 1928.
  9. The British Campaign in France and Flanders (in six volumes). He completed it only in 1920.