Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, most famed for his four novels and fifty-six short stories about the “consulting detective” Sherlock Holmes, was born on May 22nd, 1859 in Edinburgh to a Catholic family of ten. His father, Charles Altamont Doyle, was an architect and an artist. Unfortunately, his talents were shadowed by alcoholism and epilepsy. He eventually died in an asylum where he was institutionalized. The family therefore suffered financially, though Doyle’s mother, Mary, was able to pay for his schooling at a Jesuit institution.
Doyle decided to pursue medical studies at Edinburgh University, and had to take a job as a doctor’s assistant to pay for his school fees. He was already writing and publishing stories by this time, but set up a practice in Southsea in the early 1880s. During this period, he completed the first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, which was published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887. Sherlock Holmes was modeled after Doyle’s university professor, Joseph Bell, whom he greatly admired. Doyle wrote to Bell, “It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes. … [R]ound the centre of deduction and inference and observation which I have heard you inculcate I have tried to build up a man.”
However, there was also much of Doyle himself in the character of Sherlock Holmes, as Bell himself once remarked. Doyle is known to have been analytical, attentive to detail, methodical (though occasionally absent-minded and clumsy), imaginative, and reserved. He even solved a mystery of a missing person in 1907 in only one hour’s time. This case involved a countrywoman who was afraid that her cousin had been murdered; Doyle deduced from the man’s bank records, however, that he had simply gone to Scotland.
In Doyle’s two autobiographical works, The Stark Munro Letters and Memories and Adventures, he performed little analysis of either his own personality or spiritual problems. Like Holmes then, Doyle concealed his personal self. Similar to Holmes, Doyle was known as an energetic and prodigious person, who also would disappear into his study for days. As his son, Adrian, remarked: “My memories as a youth are mottled with sudden, silent periods when, following some agitated stranger, or missive, my father would disappear into his study for two or three days on end.”
Doyle published other historical works as he endeavored to write serious, “better things.” However, he took advantage of the up and coming Strand Magazine (1891) by publishing short stories there for financial gain. The Holmes short stories that he contributed became very popular with the reading public. The editor of the magazine, George Newnes, was committed to high-quality production and plenty of illustrations, including the memorable visual image of Sherlock Holmes designed by Sidney Paget.
The popularity of the Holmes stories secured Doyle financial comfort and fame, but he soon tired of his hero and “killed” him off in The Final Problem (1893). However, he later returned to stories about his hero when the public clamor proved too difficult to ignore. All the while, though, Doyle wrote other works and: took a post as a war correspondent in Egypt; supported the British management of the Boer War; oversaw a field hospital in South Africa; and was knighted in 1902. In 1902 Doyle penned one of his most famous Sherlock Holmes works: The Hound of the Baskervilles.
In 1912, Doyle wrote one of his other most enduring works, The Lost World. This science fiction tale centered on the character Professor Challenger’s journey to the Amazon, where he discovers a place where dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts still survive.
During World War I, Doyle became immensely interested in spiritualism, and he wrote many works on the subject. This new subject produced much criticism, especially regarding his support for the photographs of the Cottingley Fairies. Throughout this time, he continued to write poetry, short stories, pamphlets, and adventure novels. Some of his work dealt with humanitarian causes, an example being The Crime of the Congo (1909), which excoriated the brutality of the Belgians in the Congo.
Arthur Conan Doyle died on July 7th, 1930 of a heart attack; he was 71 years old. He was married twice; his first wife Louise died from tuberculosis in 1906, and his second wife Jean survived him. He had five children in total. He was buried in an anonymous grave in unconsecrated ground outside a churchyard fence, on account of his avowedly Spiritualist religious beliefs. The graveyard was later extended and now contains his grave. There are still no public headstones, however.