Not one of our contributors but without him we would not exist!
Arthur Conan Doyle was born on 22nd May 1859, in Edinburgh, to an English father of Irish descent, Charles Altamont Doyle, and an Irish mother, née Mary Foley, who had married in 1855. Conan Doyle was educated at Stonyhurst College, but by the time he left the school in 1875, he had rejected Christianity to become an agnostic.
From 1876 to 1881, he studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh and following his term at university, he served as a ship’s doctor on a voyage to the West African coast. In 1882, he joined former classmate George Budd as his partner at a medical practice in Plymouth, but their relationship proved difficult, and Conan Doyle soon left to set up an independent practice. Arriving in Portsmouth in June of that year with less than £10 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, he again began writing stories. His first significant work was A Study in Scarlet, which appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887 and featured the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes, who was partially modelled after his former university professor, Joseph Bell to whom Conan 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’. Future short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes were published in The Strand Magazine.
In 1885, he married Louisa (or Louise) Hawkins, known as Touie, who suffered from tuberculosis and died on 4th July 1906. He subsequently married Jean Elizabeth Leckie in 1907, whom he had first met and fallen in love with in 1897, but had maintained a platonic relationship with her out of loyalty to his first wife. Jean died in London on 27th June 1940.
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, saying, ‘You may do what you deem fit, but the crowds will not take this lightheartedly’. In December 1893, he did so in order to dedicate more of his time to more important works: his historical novels.
Holmes and Moriarty apparently plunged to their deaths together down a waterfall in the story The Adventure of The Final Problem. Public outcry led him to bring the character back; Conan Doyle returned to the story in The Adventure of the Empty House, with the explanation that only Moriarty had fallen but, since Holmes had other dangerous enemies, he had arranged to be temporarily dead also. Holmes ultimately appeared in a total of fifty-six short stories and four Conan Doyle novels including his best known work The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Following the Boer War in South Africa at the turn of the 20th century and the condemnation from around the world over the United Kingdom’s conduct, Conan Doyle wrote a short pamphlet titled, The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct, which justified the UK’s role in the Boer War and earned him a knighthood.
Conan Doyle was also a fervent advocate of justice and personally investigated two closed cases, which led to two men being exonerated of the crimes they were accused of. 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. Police were set on Edalji’s conviction, even though the mutilations continued after their suspect was jailed. It was partially as a result of this case that the Court of Criminal Appeal was established in 1907.
The second case, that of Oscar Slater, a German Jew and gambling-den operator convicted of bludgeoning an 82-year-old woman in Glasgow in 1908, excited Conan Doyle’s curiosity because of inconsistencies in the prosecution case and a general sense that Slater was framed.
After the death of his wife Louisa in 1906, and the death of his son Kingsley, his brother Innes, his two brothers-in-law (one of whom was E. W. Hornung, the creator of the literary character Raffles), and his two nephews shortly after World War I, Conan Doyle sank into depression. He found solace supporting spiritualism and its alleged scientific proof of existence beyond the grave. His book, The Coming of the Fairies (1921) shows he was apparently convinced of the veracity of the Cottingley Fairies photographs, which he reproduced in the book, together with theories about the nature and existence of fairies and spirits. In his The History of Spiritualism (1926), Conan Doyle praised the psychic phenomena and spirit materialisations produced by Eusapia Palladino and Mina ‘Margery’ Crandon.
Conan Doyle was found clutching his chest in the family garden at Windlesham, Crowborough, on 7th July 1930. He soon died of his heart attack, aged 71, and is buried in the church yard at Minstead in the New Forest, Hampshire. His last words were directed toward his wife: “You are wonderful”.