The 160th anniversary of the birth of Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle

The 160th anniversary of the birth of Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle

I HAVE had a life which, for variety and romance, could, I think, hardly be exceeded. I have known what it was to be a poor man and I have known what it was to be fairly affluent. I have sampled every kind of human experience. I have known many of the most remarkable men of my time. I have had a long literary career after a medical training which gave me the M.D. of Edinburgh. I have tried my hand at very many sports, including boxing, cricket, billiards, motoring, football, aeronautics and skiing, having been the first to introduce the latter for long journeys into Switzerland. I have travelled as Doctor to a whaler for seven months in the Arctic and afterwards in the West Coast of Africa. I have seen something of three wars, the Soudanese, the South African and the German. My life has been dotted with adventures of all kinds.

Arthur Conan Doyle

Biography timeline

1859, Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born on May 22 in Edinburgh, Scotland to Charles Altamont Doyle and Mary Doyle. The Doyles were a prosperous Irish-Catholic family. Charles Altamont Doyle, Arthur’s father was a moderately successful artist.

1868-1875, Conan Doyle lived and studied in Stonyhurst College, a Jesuit boarding school in Lanarkshire, England

I passed on to Stonyhurst, that grand medieval dwelling-house which was left some hundred and fifty years ago to the Jesuits, who brought over their whole teaching staff from some college in Holland in order to carry it on as a public school. The general curriculum, like the building, was medieval but sound. <…> There were seven classes—elements, figures, rudiments, grammar, syntax, poetry and rhetoric—and you were allotted a year for each, or seven in all. It was the usual public school routine of Euclid, algebra and the classics, taught in the usual way, which is calculated to leave a lasting abhorrence of these subjects. To give boys a little slab of Virgil or Homer with no general idea as to what it is all about or what the classical age was like, is surely an absurd way of treating the subject. I am sure that an intelligent boy could learn more by reading a good translation of Homer for a week than by a year’s study of the original as it is usually carried out. It was no worse at Stonyhurst than at any other school, and it can only be excused on the plea that any exercise, however stupid in itself, forms a sort of mental dumbbell by which one can improve one’s mind. It is, I think, a thoroughly false theory. I can say with truth that my Latin and Greek, which cost me so many weary hours, have been little use to me in life, and that my mathematics have been no use at all. <…> The life was Spartan, and yet we had all that was needed. Dry bread and hot well-watered milk was our frugal breakfast. There was a «joint» and twice a week a pudding for dinner. Then there was an odd snack called «bread and beer» in the afternoon, a bit of dry bread and the most extraordinary drink, which was brown but had no other characteristic of beer. Finally, there was hot milk again, bread, butter, and often potatoes for supper. We were all very healthy on this régime, with fish, on Fridays. «Memories and Adventures», 1924.

1876 –1881, Conan Doyle attended the University of Edinburgh Medical School where he met Dr. Joseph Bell, the person who inspired the character of Sherlock Holmes.

A tall strongly-framed but half-formed young man, fairly entered upon my five years’ course of medical study. It can be done with diligence in four years, but there came, as I shall show, a glorious interruption which held me back for one year. I entered as a student in October 1876, and I emerged as a Bachelor of Medicine in August 1881. Between these two points lies one long weary grind at botany, chemistry, anatomy, physiology, and a whole list of compulsory subjects, many of which have a very indirect bearing upon the art of curing. «Memories and Adventures», 1924.

In February 1880, Conan Doyle put aside his medical studies to go off to the Arctic for six months on a whaling ship. It was in the Hope, under the command of the well- known whaler, John Gray, that I paid a seven months’ visit to the Arctic Seas in the year 1880. I went in the capacity of surgeon, but as I was only twenty years of age when I started, and as my knowledge of medicine was that of an average third year’s student, I have often thought that it was as well that there was no very serious call upon my services. «Memories and Adventures», 1924.

1882 Conan Doyle left for Southsea, Portsmouth, to establish his own medical practice. Published in London Society, All the Year Round, Lancet, and the British Journal of Photography. Wrote his first novel, The Narrative of John Smith, which was later lost and published in 2011. Month followed month and I picked up a patient here and a patient there until the nucleus of a little practice had been formed. Sometimes it was an accident, sometimes an emergency case, sometimes a newcomer to the town or one who had quarrelled with his doctor. I mixed with people so far as I could, for I learned that a brass plate alone will never attract, and people must see the human being who lies in wait behind it. Medical life is full of dangers and pitfalls, and luck must always play its part in a man’s career. I made £154 the first year, and £250 the second, rising slowly to £800, which in eight years I never passed, so far as the medical practice went. «Memories and Adventures», 1924.
1885, Conan Doyle marries Louise “Toulie” Hawkins. She gives him two children (Mary Louise and Kingsley) and encourages him to persevere in literature. We were married on August 6, 1885, and no man could have had a more gentle and amiable life’s companion. Our union was marred by the sad ailment which came after a very few years to cast its shadow over our lives, but it comforts me to think that during the time when we were together there was no single occasion when our affection was disturbed by any serious breach or division, the credit of which lies entirely with her own quiet philosophy, which enabled her to bear with smiling patience not only her own sad illness, which lasted so long, but all those other vicissitudes which life brings with it. I rejoice to think that though she married a penniless doctor, she was spared long enough to fully appreciate the pleasure and the material comforts which worldly success was able to bring us. She had some small income of her own which enabled me to expand my simple housekeeping in a way which gave her from the first the decencies, if not the luxuries, of life. «Memories and Adventures», 1924.
1887, A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes story, was published in the Beeton’s Christmas Annual It was about a year after my marriage that I realized that I could go on doing short stories for ever and never make headway.<…> I felt now that I was capable of something fresher and crisper and more workmanlike. Gaboriau had rather attracted me by the neat dovetailing of his plots, and Poe’s masterful detective, M. Dupin, had from boyhood been one of my heroes. But could I bring an addition of my own? I thought of my old teacher Joe Bell, of his eagle face, of his curious ways, of his eerie trick of spotting details. If he were a detective he would surely reduce this fascinating but unorganized business to something nearer to an exact science. I would try if I could get this effect. It was surely possible in real life, so why should I not make it plausible in fiction? It is all very well to say that a man is clever, but the reader wants to see examples of it—such examples as Bell gave us every day in the wards. The idea amused me. What should I call the fellow? I still possess the leaf of a notebook with various alternative names. One rebelled against the elementary art which gives some inkling of character in the name, and creates Mr. Sharps or Mr. Ferrets. First it was Sherringford Holmes; then it was Sherlock Holmes.
He could not tell his own exploits, so he must have a commonplace comrade as a foil—an educated man of action who could both join in the exploits and narrate them. A drab, quiet name for this unostentatious man. Watson would do. And so I had my puppets and wrote my «A Study in Scarlet.» «Memories and Adventures», 1924.

1889, “Micah Clarke”, was published. «It was the first solid corner-stone laid for some sort of literary reputation» Conan Doyle wrote in his memories. I now determined to test my powers to the full, and I chose a historical novel for this end, because it seemed to me the one way of combining a certain amount of literary dignity with those scenes of action and adventure which were natural to my young and ardent mind. I had always felt great sympathy for the Puritans, who, after all, whatever their little peculiarities, did represent political liberty and earnestness in religion. <…> in «Micah Clarke”, where I fairly let myself go upon the broad highway of adventure. I was well up in history, but I spent some months over details and then wrote the book very rapidly. There are bits of it, the picture of the Puritan household, and the sketch of Judge Jeffreys, which I have never bettered. When it was finished early in 1888 my hopes ran high and out it went on its travels. «Memories and Adventures», 1924.
1891, After several months of advanced ophthalmology study in Vienna and Paris, A. Conan Doyle opened a new practice in London continuing to write all the while, in what he called his all too abundant free time. That summer, the overnight success of his first Sherlock Holmes short stories, in the new periodical The Strand Magazine, convinced him to give up medicine for writing.

1894 –Conan Doyle accepted to go to the United States to give a series of lectures. He was booked to give talks in more than thirty cities. The tour was a huge success.
In 1900, when the Second Boer War broke out, Conan Doyle returned to medicine to spend six months in South Africa as a volunteer field army surgeon. The Colonel, a grizzled soldier, sat behind a deal table in an orderly room and dealt swiftly with the applicants. He had no idea who I was, but seeing a man of forty before him he intimated that I surely did not intend to go into the ranks. I said that I was prepared to take a commission. He asked if I could ride and shoot. I said that I could do both in moderation. He asked if I had had military experience. I said that I had led an adventurous life and seen a little of military operations in the Soudan<…> However the Colonel would only put me on his waiting list, took my name, still without recognizing me, and passed on to the next case. I departed somewhat crestfallen and unsettled, not knowing whether I had heard the last of the matter or not. Almost immediately afterwards, however, I received an offer which took me out in a capacity which was less sporting but probably in my case and at my age a good deal more useful. <…> This came from my friend John Langman <…>
Langman was sending out a hospital of fifty beds at his own expense to Africa, and had already chosen his staff of surgeons but not his personnel. Archie Langman was to go with the Hospital as general manager. Langman’s idea was that I should help him to choose the personnel, that I should be a supplementary medico, and that I should exercise a general supervision over the whole in an unofficial capacity. «Memories and Adventures», 1924.

In 1902, Doyle received his knighthood from the British Crown for a pamphlet, The War in South Africa: Its Causes and Conduct and for his service to the nation. ONE of the most pleasing and complete episodes in my life was connected with the pamphlet which I wrote upon the methods and objects of our soldiers in South Africa. It was an attempt to stem the extraordinary outbreak of defamation which had broken out in every country—or nearly every country, in Europe, and which had attained such a height that it really seemed that on this absolutely fictitious basis might be built up a powerful political combination which would involve us in a serious war. «Memories and Adventures», 1924.
In September 1907, Conan Doyle married Jean Elizabeth Leckie with whom he had been in love since 1897 but had always maintained a friendly relationship until the death of his first wife. He moved to Crowborough in Sussex, where Jean gave him three children (Denis, Adrian and Jean).

1911- Arthur Conan Doyle took part in the Prince Henry Tour. One of my most remarkable pre-war experiences, which influenced my mind deeply, was my participation in the amateur motor race called the Prince Henry Competition. It was rather a reliability test than a race, for the car had to go some 150 miles a day on an average at its own pace, but marks were taken off for all involuntary stoppages, breakdowns, accidents, etc. Each owner had to drive his own car, and I had entered my little 16 horse-power landaulette. There were about forty British cars and fifty German, so that the procession was a very considerable one. Starting from Homburg, the watering-place, our route ran through North Germany, then by steamer to Southampton, up to Edinburgh and back to London by devious ways. «Memories and Adventures», 1924.
1914 -When World War I broke out, Conan Doyle at once wrote a national appeal, To Arms!, and was brought onto His Majesty’s Government’s secret War Propaganda Board.

1924, Arthur Conan Doyle published his autobiography, Memories and Adventures.

1930 — Arthur Conan Doyle died of a heart attack at his home on Monday, July 7, surrounded by his family.

The Author

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote more than 240 fictions of all genres and more than 1200 other works such as essays, pamphlets, articles, letters to the press, poems, interviews, plays. His works cover such subjects as politics, history, spiritualism, war, crime, etc. the books written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle


The Poems of Arthur Conan Doyle were first published in 1922. The 3 volumes are: Songs of Action (1898), Songs of the Road (1911), and The Guards Came Through and Other Poems (1919).

The Sherlock Holmes stories

All monthly Strand Magazines with Sherlock Holmes stories Sherlock Holmes first appeared in a short story, A Study in Scarlet (1887). In spite of how original it was, Doyle had great difficulty in persuading publishers to accept the story. In the end, he sold it to Beeton’s Christmas Annual for twenty-five pounds. The story is narrated by Dr John Watson who shares rooms with Holmes at 221B Baker Street. The two men were to become inseparable companions and share over fifty adventures together. Holmes’s second published case was The Sign of Four (1890). The editor of The Strand magazine commissioned Conan Doyle to write 12 short stories using the Holmes and Watson characters, publishing one a month from July 1891 to June 1892. By the end of the first series Conan Doyle’s detective had become a national institution. The magazine wanted more stories. But as the author didn’t want to be overly associated with the now-famous detective, he demanded an outrageous sum of money. Expecting to be relieved of the obligation to write more stories, Conan Doyle asked for 50 pounds per story. He was stunned when the magazine accepted, and he went on writing about Sherlock Holmes. While the public was crazy for Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle devised a way to be finished with writing the stories.
He killed off the character by having him, and his nemesis Professor Moriarity, die while going over Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. Conan Doyle’s own mother, when told of the planned story, begged her son not to finish off Sherlock Holmes. When the story in which Holmes died was published in December 1893, the British reading public was outraged. Doyle received many abusive letters. “I’m glad I’ve killed him”, he announced. However, the demand for Holmes stories was so great that Conan Doyle essentially brought the great detective back to life by explaining that no one had actually seen Holmes go over the falls. The public, happy to have new tales, accepted the explanation.

So, having once conceived that line of thought, you can well imagine that I had as it were, a new idea of the detective and one which it interested me to work out. I thought of a hundred little dodges, as you may say, a hundred little touches by which he could build up his conclusions and then I began to write stories on those lines. At first I think they attracted very little attention, but after a time when I began the short adventures one after the other coming out month after month in The Strand Magazine, people began to recognize that it was different from the old detective, that there was something there which was new, they began to buy the magazine and uh, it uh prospered and so I may say did I, we both came along together. And from that time Sherlock Holmes fairly took root. I’ve written a good deal more about him than I ever intended to do but my hand has been forced by kind friends who continually wanted to know more, and so it is that this monstrous growth has come out of what was really a comparatively small seed. But the curious thing is how many people around the world are perfectly convinced that he is a living human being. I get letters addressed to him, I get letters asking for his autograph, I get letters addressed to his rather stupid friend, Watson, I’ve even had ladies writing to say that they’d be very glad to act as his housekeeper. One of them when she’d heard that he’d turned to the occupation of keeping bees wrote saying that she was an expert at segregating the queen, whatever that may mean, and that she was evidently predestined to be the housekeeper of Sherlock Holmes. I don’t know that there’s anything more that I can say with advantage, about him.
In March 1901 Conan Doyle was taking a golfing break with a friend at Cromer in Norfolk. One night in the hotel, the two men fell to talking about ghosts and Fletcher Robinson told Conan Doyle about the legend of a spectral hound that haunted the moors of Dartmoor. The author was taken with the story. He saw in this legend the basis for an exciting story. He began working out the plot and visited Dartmoor to research some locations. He was driven around by an old coachman called Baskerville and it is supposed that Conan Doyle decided to use this unusual name in the title of his story. “The Hound of the Baskervilles” was serialized in the Strand magazine. It ran for nine issues from August 1901 to April 1902. Readers were agog with excitement.

Historical adventures

Arthur Conan Doyle wrote several popular works of historical fiction. The first was Micah Clarke (1889), which is set in the seventeenth century during the Monmouth Rebellion. The White Company (1891) recounts the history of a company of medieval English archers during the Hundred Years’ War, in the years 1366 and 1367. In 1906, Doyle published its prequel, Sir Nigel, which is set in the early phase of the Hundred Years’ War. Doyle also wrote a series of short stories about a Napoleonic hussar named Etienne Gerard, which was first published in magazines and eventually in book form: The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard (1896) and Adventures of Gerard (1903). Earlier in 1892, he published The Great Shadow and Other Napoleonic Tales. It should be noted that Conan Doyle was often disappointed at being famous chiefly for the creation of the Sherlock Holmes character. He had much higher esteem of his historical novels than the Sherlock Holmes stories.

The Lecture «The White Company» by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Professor Challenger stories

Arthur Conan Doyle is also the author of fantasy and science fiction, which includes three novels and two short stories: The Lost World (1912), The Poison Belt (1913), The Land of Mist (1926), “The Disintegration Machine” (1928), and “When the World Screamed” (1929). The Lost World introduced his second most famous character, Professor George Edward Challenger, who guides an expedition deep into an isolated plateau in the South American jungle where some prehistoric animals (dinosaurs) and indigenous race of ape-like people still live. Challenger, a scientist of enormous intellect and adventurer, was designed to be a character to rival Holmes. The Poison Belt is an apocalyptic novel that features the same characters who appear in The Lost World. Astronomers discover that the Earth is about to be engulfed in a belt of poisonous gas “ether” from outer space. Prior to (apparently) extinguishing all life on the planet, the belt causes a mysterious outbreak of illness whose symptoms are irritability, loss of inhibition, coma, and (pseudo) death. The Land of Mist (1926) Professor Challenger is converted to Spiritualism.