Arthur Conan Doyle Biography

Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930)

Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on May 22, 1859, the third of ten children of an Irish painter who specialized in fantasy scenes. Conan Doyle was sent to England at age nine to attend Jesuit boarding school, an experience he loathed. At the school, however, he exhibited a talent for storytelling, captivating his teachers and fellow students at the school with his yarns. Conan Doyle then studied medicine at Edinburgh University while also finding time to write. While a medical student, he worked with a man named Dr. Bell, who Conan Doyle found to be exceptionally observant. Conan Doyle later wrote that this led him to think about writing stories, "in which the hero would treat crime as Dr Bell treated disease and where science would take the place of chance." Conan Doyle’s first publication came in 1879 with “The Mystery of Sasassa Valley” in Chambers's Journal. After briefly serving as a naval doctor, he moved around southern England until he finally settled in the town of Southsea, Portsmouth, pursuing a career as a surgeon.

Conan Doyle had continued to write for his own pleasure up until this point in his life, but in 1887 he succeeded in publishing A Study in Scarlet, a slim novel that introduced the world to Sherlock Holmes, a detective who relied on facts and evidence rather than chance. In 1890, Conan Doyle wrote another Sherlock Holmes novel, The Sign of Four, but neither of his first two Holmes novels proved to be financially successful. 

Conan Doyle decided to become an eye doctor and move with his wife, Louse, to London in 1891. But he found that he had few patients and was consequently left with plenty of time to write. Conan Doyle decided to switch formats and started writing Holmes mysteries as short stories rather than novels. Thus, Conan Doyle was able to capitalize on his talent for writing rapid, engrossing plots and minimize the tedium that was evident in his earlier novels. Starting with “The Red-Headed League,” six Adventures of Sherlock Holmes appeared in 1891 in The Strand Magazine, with six more appearing the next year. By 1893, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, as the collected stories were now called, was a huge hit, electrifying readers throughout the English-speaking world.

In a matter of months, Conan Doyle had gone from a struggling eye doctor to one of the most famous writers in the world. He quickly grew tired of being solely identified with Sherlock Holmes. So, in 1893, he killed off his fictional detective in a climactic battle with the evil Professor Moriarity in “The Final Problem.” Readers in Britain and the United States mourned the loss of their hero, and grown men were seen to wear black armbands for weeks afterward.

Conan Doyle continued to write both fiction and nonfiction throughout the 1890s, although none of his works were even fractionally as popular as the Sherlock Holmes stories. Finally, in 1901 he bowed to financial and public pressures and revived Sherlock with The Hound of the Baskervilles—a novel many critics regard as one of the greatest mysteries ever written. In 1903, Conan Doyle began putting out Sherlock Holmes stories again, including the collected Return of Sherlock Holmes. In addition to many other non-Holmes works, he published The Lost World, a popular science-fiction novel, in 1912. Later in life, after his son was killed in World War I, Conan Doyle devoted himself to his chosen faith, spiritualism. His Holmes stories continued almost until his death in 1930.

Arthur Conan Doyle, Short Stories, and Detective Fiction


The commercial success of the Sherlock Holmes stories can hardly be overstated. Sherlock Holmes had become so popular that in the first 100 years after his first appearance in A Study in Scarlet in 1887, the character had featured in more than 100 films, more than 700 radio dramas, and more than 2,000 stories and novels. During the 20th century, only Mickey Mouse rivaled Sherlock Holmes as the most recognizable fictional character in the world.

Conan Doyle’s creation made outsized contributions in the literary realm as well. Almost single-handedly, he inaugurated two massive changes in literature. First, he transformed the short story from a mildly successful exercise to a major literary form capable of sustaining both an enormous readership and a longstanding critical interest. Second, Conan Doyle perfected and popularized the detective story, which went on to become the most popular new genre of fiction in the 20th century. Earlier writers had published short stories and mysteries before, but all had failed to energize readers to the degree that Conan Doyle’s Holmes achieved. Readers also identified with Holmes’s real-world London and liked the fact that they had the opportunity to solve the mysteries along with the hero.

One of the writers whose detective stories predate Conan Doyle’s is Edgar Allan Poe (1808-1849), and Conan Doyle’s debt to Poe should not be minimized. Poe is often credited with having created the modern detective tale. “The Gold Bug” (1843), “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” (1842–1843), and “The Purloined Letter” (1844) are all, in a sense, precursors to Conan Doyle's detective stories.

Another writer whose works likely influenced Conan Doyle was the English novelist Wilkie Collins (1824-1889). Collins’s The Woman in White (1859) and The Moonstone (1868) are also often cited as having set many of the conventions that we have come to expect from mystery-solving and detective stories. Collins is also sometimes credited with laying out much of the format we have come to expect from the now ubiquitous police procedural genre, although strong aspects of that could be seen in some of Poe’s works such as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

Arthur Conan Doyle Study Guides

Arthur Conan Doyle Quotes

The highest morality may prove also to be the highest wisdom when the half-told story comes to be finished.

These pictures are not occult, but they are psychic because everything that emanates from the human spirit or human brain is psychic. It is not supernatural; nothing is. It is preternatural in the sense that it is not known to our ordinary senses.

Arthur Conan Doyle Novels

The Hound of the Baskervilles

Published 1902

Arthur Conan Doyle Short Stories

The Red-Headed League

Published 1891

A Scandal in Bohemia

Published 1891

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Published 1892