The man behind it all
Arthur Conan Doyle was born on 22 May 1859, in Edinburgh, Scotland, to an English father, Charles Altamont Doyle, and an Irish mother, née Mary Foley, who had married in 1855. Although he is now referred to as "Conan Doyle", the origin of this compound surname is uncertain. Conan Doyle's father was an artist, as were his paternal uncles (one of whom was Richard Doyle), and his paternal grandfather John Doyle.
Conan Doyle was sent to the Roman Catholic Jesuit preparatory school Hodder Place, Stonyhurst, at the age of eight. He then went on to Stonyhurst College, but by the time he left the school in 1875, he had rejected Christianity to become an agnostic.
From 1876 to 1881 he studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, including a period working in the town of Aston (now a district of Birmingham). While studying, he also began writing short stories; his first published story appeared in Chambers's Edinburgh Journal before he was 20. Following his term at university, he served as a ship's doctor on a voyage to the West African coast. He completed his doctorate on the subject of tabes dorsalis in 1885.
In 1882, he joined former classmate George Budd as his partner at a medical practice in Plymouth, but their relationship proved difficult, and Conan Doyle soon left to set up an independent practice. Arriving in Portsmouth in June of that year with less than £10 to his name, he set up a medical practice at 1 Bush Villas in Elm Grove, Southsea. The practice was initially not very successful; while waiting for patients, he again began writing stories. His first significant work was A Study in Scarlet, which appeared in Beeton's Christmas Annual for 1887 and featured the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes, who was partially modelled after his former university professor, Joseph Bell. Future short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes were published in the English Strand Magazine. Interestingly, Rudyard Kipling congratulated Conan Doyle on his success, asking "Could this be my old friend, Dr. Joe?" Sherlock Holmes, however, was even more closely modelled after the famous Edgar Allan Poe character, C. Auguste Dupin.
While living in Southsea he played football for an amateur side, Portsmouth Association Football Club, as a goalkeeper. (This club disbanded in 1894 and had no connection with the Portsmouth F.C. of today, which was founded in 1898.) Conan Doyle was also a keen cricketer, and between 1900 and 1907 he played 10 first-class matches for the MCC. His highest score was 43 against London County in 1902. He was an occasional bowler who took just one first-class wicket.
In 1885, he married Louisa (or Louise) Hawkins, known as "Touie", who suffered from tuberculosis and died on 4 July 1906. He married Jean Leckie in 1907, whom he had first met and fallen in love with in 1897 but had maintained a platonic relationship with her out of loyalty to his first wife. Conan Doyle had five children, two with his first wife (Mary Louise (born 1889) and Alleyne Kingsley (1892 – 1918)) and three with his second wife (Jean Lena Annette, Denis Percy Stewart (17 March 1909 – 9 March 1955), second husband in 1936 of Georgian Princess Nina Mdivani (circa 1910 – 19 February 1987) (former sister-in-law of Barbara Hutton), and Adrian Malcolm).
In 1890, Conan Doyle studied the eye in Vienna; he moved to London in 1891 to set up a practice as an ophthalmologist. He wrote in his autobiography that not a single patient crossed his door. This gave him more time for writing, and in November 1891 he wrote to his mother: "I think of slaying Holmes... and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things." His mother responded, saying, "You may do what you deem fit, but the crowds will not take this lightheartedly." In December 1893, he did so in order to dedicate more of his time to more "important" works (his historical novels).
Holmes and Moriarty apparently plunged to their deaths together down a waterfall in the story, "The Final Problem". Public outcry led him to bring the character back; Conan Doyle returned to the story in "The Adventure of the Empty House", with the explanation that only Moriarty had fallen but, since Holmes had other dangerous enemies, he had arranged to be temporarily "dead" also. Holmes ultimately appears in a total of 56 short stories and four Conan Doyle novels (he has since appeared in many novels and stories by other authors).
Following the Boer War in South Africa at the turn of the 20th century and the condemnation from around the world over the United Kingdom's conduct, Conan Doyle wrote a short pamphlet titled, The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct, which justified the UK's role in the Boer war, and was widely translated.
Conan Doyle believed that it was this pamphlet that resulted in 1902 in his being knighted and appointed Deputy-Lieutenant of Surrey. He also in 1900 wrote the longer book, The Great Boer War. During the early years of the 20th century, Sir Arthur twice ran for Parliament as a Liberal Unionist, once in Edinburgh and once in the Hawick Burghs, but although he received a respectable vote he was not elected.
Conan Doyle was involved in the campaign for the reform of the Congo Free State, led by the journalist E. D. Morel and the diplomat Roger Casement. He wrote The Crime of the Congo in 1909, a long pamphlet in which he denounced the horrors in that country. He became acquainted with Morel and Casement, taking inspiration from them for two of the main characters in the novel, The Lost World (1912).
He broke with both when Morel became one of the leaders of the pacifist movement during the First World War, and when Casement committed treason against the UK during the Easter Rising out of conviction for his Irish nationalist views. Conan Doyle tried, unsuccessfully, to save Casement from the death penalty, arguing that he had been driven mad and was not responsible for his actions.
Conan Doyle was also a fervent advocate of justice, and personally investigated two closed cases, which led to two imprisoned men being released. The first case, in 1906, involved a shy half-British, half-Indian lawyer named George Edalji, who had allegedly penned threatening letters and mutilated animals. Police were set on Edalji's conviction, even though the mutilations continued after their suspect was jailed.
It was partially as a result of this case that the Court of Criminal Appeal was established in 1907, so not only did Conan Doyle help George Edalji, his work helped establish a way to correct other miscarriages of justice. The story of Conan Doyle and Edalji is told in fictional form in Julian Barnes' 2005 novel, Arthur & George.
The second case, that of Oscar Slater, a German Jew and gambling-den operator convicted of bludgeoning an 82-year-old woman in Glasgow in 1908, excited Conan Doyle's curiosity because of inconsistencies in the prosecution case and a general sense that Slater was framed.
After the death of his wife Louisa in 1906, and the deaths of his son Kingsley, his brother Innes, his two brothers-in-law (one of whom was E W Hornung, the creator of the literary character Raffles), and his two nephews shortly after World War I, Conan Doyle sank into depression. He found solace supporting Spiritualism and its alleged scientific proof of existence beyond the grave.
According to the History Channel program Houdini: Unlocking the Mystery (which briefly explored the friendship between the two), Conan Doyle became involved with Spiritualism after the deaths of his son and his brother. Kingsley Doyle died from pneumonia on 28 October 1918, which he contracted during his convalescence after being seriously wounded during the 1916 Battle of the Somme. Brigadier-General Innes Doyle died in February 1919, also from pneumonia. Sir Arthur became involved with Spiritualism to the extent that he wrote a Professor Challenger novel on the subject, The Land of Mist.
His book, The Coming of the Fairies (1921) shows he was apparently convinced of the veracity of the Cottingley Fairies photographs, which he reproduced in the book, together with theories about the nature and existence of fairies and spirits.
His work on this topic was one of the reasons that one of his short story collections, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, was banned in the Soviet Union in 1929 for supposed occultism. This ban was later lifted. Russian actor Vasily Livanov later received an Order of the British Empire for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes.
Conan Doyle was friends for a time with the American magician Harry Houdini, who himself became a prominent opponent of the Spiritualist movement in the 1920s following the death of his beloved mother. Although Houdini insisted that Spiritualist mediums employed trickery (and consistently attempted to expose them as frauds), Conan Doyle became convinced that Houdini himself possessed supernatural powers, a view expressed in Conan Doyle's The Edge of the Unknown. Houdini was apparently unable to convince Conan Doyle that his feats were simply magic tricks, leading to a bitter public falling out between the two.
Richard Milner, an American historian of science, has presented a case that Conan Doyle may have been the perpetrator of the Piltdown Man hoax of 1912, creating the counterfeit hominid fossil that fooled the scientific world for over 40 years. Milner says that Conan Doyle had a motive, namely revenge on the scientific establishment for debunking one of his favourite psychics, and that The Lost World contains several encrypted clues regarding his involvement in the hoax.