Biography of Arthur Conan Doyle, Author and Creator of Sherlock Holmes

Scottish novelist Arthur Conan Doyle, 1925

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Arthur Conan Doyle (May 22, 1859 - July 7, 1930) created one of the world's most famous characters, Sherlock Holmes. But in some ways, the Scottish-born author felt trapped by the runaway popularity of the fictional detective.

Over the course of a long writing career, Conan Doyle wrote other stories and books he believed to be superior to the tales and novels about Holmes. But the great detective turned into a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic, with the reading public clamoring for more plots involving Holmes, his sidekick Watson, and the deductive method.

As a result Conan Doyle, offered great sums of money by publishers, felt compelled to keep turning out stories about the great detective.

Fast Facts: Arthur Conan Doyle

Known For: British writer best known for his detective fiction featuring the character Sherlock Holmes. 

Born: May 22, 1859

Died: July 7, 1930

Published Works: More than 50 titles featuring Sherlock Holmes, "The Lost World"

Spouse(s): Louisa Hawkins (m. 1885; died 1906), Jean Leckie (m. 1907)

Children: Mary Louise, Arthur Alleyne Kingsley, Denis Percy Stewart, Adrian Malcolm, Jean Lena Annette

Notable Quote: "When the impossible has been eliminated, all that remains no matter how improbable is possible."

Early Life of Arthur Conan Doyle

Arthur Conan Doyle was born May 22, 1859, in Edinburgh, Scotland. The family's roots were in Ireland, which Arthur's father had left as a young man. The family surname had been Doyle, but as an adult Arthur preferred to use Conan Doyle as his surname.

Growing up as an avid reader, young Arthur, a Roman Catholic, attended Jesuit schools and a Jesuit university.

He attended medical school at Edinburgh University where he met a professor and surgeon, Dr. Joseph Bell, who was a model for Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle noticed how Dr. Bell was able to determine a great many facts about patients by asking seemingly simple questions, and the author later wrote about how Bell's manner had inspired the fictional detective.

Medical Career

In the late 1870s, Conan Doyle began writing magazine stories, and while pursuing his medical studies he had a yearning for adventure. At the age of 20, in 1880, he signed on to be the ship's surgeon of a whaling vessel headed to Antarctica. After a seven-month voyage, he returned to Edinburgh, finished his medical studies, and began the practice of medicine.

Conan Doyle continued to pursue writing and published in various London literary magazines throughout the 1880s. Influenced by a character of Edgar Allan Poe, the French detective M. Dupin, Conan Doyle wished to create his own detective character.

Sherlock Holmes

The character of Sherlock Holmes first appeared in a story, "A Study in Scarlet," which Conan Doyle published at the end of 1887 in a magazine, Beeton's Christmas Annual. It was reprinted as a book in 1888.

At the same time, Conan Doyle was conducting research for a historical novel, "Micah Clarke", which was set in the 17th century. He seemed to consider that his serious work, and the Sherlock Holmes character merely a challenging diversion to see if he could write a convincing detective story.

At some point, it occurred to Conan Doyle that the growing British magazine market was the perfect place to try an experiment in which a recurring character would turn up in new stories. He approached The Strand magazine with his idea, and in 1891 he began publishing new Sherlock Holmes stories.

The magazine stories became an enormous hit in England. The character of the detective who uses reasoning became a sensation. And the reading public eagerly awaited his newest adventures.

Illustrations for the stories were drawn by an artist, Sidney Paget, who actually added much to the public's conception of the character. It was Paget who drew Holmes wearing a deerstalker cap and a cape, details not mentioned in the original stories.

Arthur Conan Doyle Became Famous

With the success of the Holmes stories in The Strand magazine, Conan Doyle was suddenly an extremely famous writer. 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 to keep 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. More than 20,000 people canceled their magazine subscriptions. And in London, it was reported that businessmen wore mourning crepe on their top hats.

Sherlock Holmes Was Revived

Arthur Conan Doyle, freed from Sherlock Holmes, wrote other stories and invented a character named Etienne Gerard, a soldier in Napoleon's army. The Gerard stories were popular, but not nearly as popular as Sherlock Holmes.

In 1897 Conan Doyle wrote a play about Holmes, and an actor, William Gillette, became a sensation playing the detective on Broadway in New York City. Gillette added another facet to the character, the famous meerschaum pipe.

A novel about Holmes, "The Hound of the Baskervilles", was serialized in The Strand in 1901-02. Conan Doyle got around the death of Holmes by setting the story five years before his demise.

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.

Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about Sherlock Holmes until the 1920s.

In 1912 he published an adventure novel, "The Lost World", about characters who find dinosaurs still living in a remote area of South America. The story of "The Lost World" has been adapted for film and television a number of times, and also served as an inspiration for such films as "King Kong" and "Jurassic Park".

Conan Doyle served as a doctor in a military hospital in South Africa during the Boer War in 1900 and wrote a book defending Britain's actions in the war. For his services he was knighted in 1902, becoming Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The author died on July 7, 1930. His death was newsworthy enough to be reported on the front page of the next day's New York Times. A headline referred to him as "Spiritist, Novelist, and Creator of Famous Fiction Detective." As Conan Doyle believed in an afterlife, his family said they were awaiting a message from him after death.

The character of Sherlock Holmes, of course, lives on and appears in films right up to the present day.

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McNamara, Robert. "Biography of Arthur Conan Doyle, Author and Creator of Sherlock Holmes." ThoughtCo, Sep. 9, 2021, McNamara, Robert. (2021, September 9). Biography of Arthur Conan Doyle, Author and Creator of Sherlock Holmes. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Biography of Arthur Conan Doyle, Author and Creator of Sherlock Holmes." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).