Skip to main page content (AccessKey S)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lived from 22 May 1859 to 7 July 1930. Although by training a doctor, he was also a highly successful author whose name will forever be associated with that of his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Arthur Doyle was born in Edinburgh in 1859. The "Conan" which he used as part of his surname in later life was originally one of his middle names (the other being Ignatius). Doyle's parents were immigrants from Ireland, and his father worked as a civil servant. He was schooled at Stoneyhurst College before studying medicine at Edinburgh University from 1876 to 1881. Today a statue of Sherlock Holmes stands near Doyle's birthplace, while also close by is a popular pub called The Conan Doyle.
In 1879 Doyle had his first short story published, in Chambers's Edinburgh Journal. In 1880 Doyle spent part of his period of study as a ship's surgeon on board a whaler in the arctic, and the following year his first job after graduating was to serve as ship's surgeon on a passenger ship travelling to west Africa.
In 1882 Doyle set up a medical practice in Southsea, near Portsmouth, and started writing in earnest. His most significant early work was A Study in Scarlet which appeared in Beeton's Christmas Annual for 1887. This marked the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes was modelled on a professor at Edinburgh University, Dr Joseph Bell. Bell had always emphasised the importance of close observation in making a diagnosis and his party-piece was to pick a stranger and, through observation, deduce his occupation and recent activities.
During this period, Doyle was also instrumental in setting up Portsmouth Football Club, and served as its first goalkeeper. In 1885 he met his first wife Louise Hawkins, who died of tuberculosis in 1906. He married his second wife, Jean Leckie, in 1907. In all Doyle had five children, two from his first marriage and three from his second.
Following a period of study in Vienna in 1890, Doyle set up in practice as an oculist in London in 1891. By now he was a highly successful author, but wrote in a letter to his mother: "I think of slaying Holmes... and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things." Some have suggested that Doyle was growing jealous of the success of his creation, who many readers believed to be a real person. And when you look at a picture of Doyle it is certainly easier to see him as the slightly bumbling Dr Watson character than as Holmes himself. So in December 1893 Sherlock Holmes and his arch rival Professor Moriarty plunged to their deaths in a waterfall. The public were outraged, so a decade later, in 1902, Doyle resurrected Holmes for The Hound of the Baskervilles.
By now Doyle has become Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, knighted in 1902 for public service. Doyle had served as a doctor in South Africa during the Boer War and published two pamphlets seeking to counter international condemnation of Britain's role in that war. He believed that his knighthood was as a result of these pamphlets. During the early 1900s Doyle unsuccessfully tried to become more directly involved in politics, standing as a Liberal Unionist candidate for two Scottish seats. He also became heavily involved in what he believed to be a number of miscarriages of justice, an involvement that in part led to the establishment of the Court of Criminal Appeal in 1907.
Doyle continued to write, producing both the hugely successful Sherlock Holmes stories and a wide range of other works, that Doyle himself believed to be more worthwhile. Later in life he became deeply interested in spiritualism and for a time literally believed in fairies. Some have claimed that it was Doyle who was behind the hoax of the Piltdown Man, a fossil "discovered" in 1912 that fooled the scientific community for 40 years: and that he did it in revenge for the approach take by many scientists to spiritualism. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died in 1930 and, unlike his creation Sherlock Holmes, was given no later reprieve.