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.

Read about Conan Doyle’s influence on the use of the short story and on the development of the detective story.

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.