Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur


Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur
born May 22, 1859, Edinburgh, Scot.
died July 7, 1930, Crowborough, Sussex, Eng.

Scottish writer.

He became a doctor and practiced until 1891, studying with Dr. Joseph Bell, who was the model for his fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle was knighted for his medical work in the second South African War and his public defense of the war. Holmes first appeared in "A Study in Scarlet" (1887). Collections of Holmes stories began with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892). Tiring of Holmes, Conan Doyle devised his death in 1893, only to be forced by public demand to restore him to life. His other Holmes novels include The Sign of Four (1890), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), and The Valley of Fear (1915). His historical romances include The White Company (1890). Late in life, Conan Doyle devoted himself to spiritualism.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, detail of a portrait by H.L. Gates, 1927; in the National Portrait Gallery, ...

Courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery, London

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▪ British author
in full  Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle 
born May 22, 1859, Edinburgh, Scotland
died July 7, 1930, Crowborough, Sussex, England
 Scottish writer best known for his creation of the detective Sherlock Holmes (Holmes, Sherlock)—one of the most vivid and enduring characters in English fiction.

      Conan Doyle, the second of Charles Altamont and Mary Foley Doyle's 10 children, began seven years of Jesuit education in Lancashire, England, in 1868. After an additional year of schooling in Feldkirch, Austria, Conan Doyle returned to Edinburgh. Through the influence of Dr. Bryan Charles Waller, his mother's lodger, he prepared for entry into the University of Edinburgh's Medical School. He received his Bachelor of Medicine and Master of Surgery qualifications from Edinburgh in 1881 and an M.D. in 1885, upon completing his thesis, “An Essay upon the Vasomotor Changes in Tabes Dorsalis.”

      While a medical student, Conan Doyle was deeply impressed by the skill of his professor, Dr. Joseph Bell, in observing the most minute detail regarding a patient's condition. This master of diagnostic deduction became the model for Conan Doyle's literary creation, Sherlock Holmes, who first appeared in "A Study in Scarlet" in Beeton's Christmas Annual of 1887. Other aspects of Conan Doyle's medical education and experiences appear in his semiautobiographical novels, The Firm of Girdlestone (1890) and The Stark Munro Letters (1895), and in the collection of medical short stories Round the Red Lamp (1894). His creation of the logical, cold, calculating Holmes, the “world's first and only consulting detective,” sharply contrasted with the paranormal beliefs Conan Doyle addressed in a short novel of this period, The Mystery of Cloomber (1889). Conan Doyle's early interest in both scientifically supportable evidence and certain paranormal phenomena exemplified the complex diametrically opposing beliefs he struggled with throughout his life.

      Although public clamour prompted him to continue writing Sherlock Holmes adventures through 1926, Conan Doyle claimed the success of Holmes overshadowed the merit he believed his other historical fiction deserved, most notably his tale of 14th-century chivalry, The White Company (1891), its companion piece, Sir Nigel (1906), and his adventures of the Napoleonic war hero Brigadier Gerard and the 19th-century skeptical scientist Professor George Edward Challenger.

      When his passions ran high, Conan Doyle also turned to nonfiction. His subjects include military writings, The Great Boer War (1900) and The British Campaign in France and Flanders, 6 vol. (1916–20), the Belgian atrocities in the Congo in The Crime of the Congo (1909), as well as his involvement in the actual criminal cases of George Edalji and Oscar Slater.

      Conan Doyle married Louisa Hawkins in 1885, and together they had two children, Mary and Kingsley. A year after Louisa's death in 1906, he married Jean Leckie and with her had three children, Denis, Adrian, and Jean. Conan Doyle was knighted in 1902 for his work with a field hospital in Bloemfontein, South Africa, and other services during the South African (Boer) War (South African War).

      Conan Doyle himself viewed his most important efforts to be his campaign in support of spiritualism, the religion and psychic research subject based upon the belief that spirits of the departed continued to exist in the hereafter and can be contacted by those still living on earth. He donated the majority of his literary efforts and profits later in his life to this campaign, beginning with The New Revelation (1918) and The Vital Message (1919). He later chronicled his travels in supporting the spiritualist cause in The Wanderings of a Spiritualist (1921), Our American Adventure (1923), Our Second American Adventure (1924), and Our African Winter (1929). He discussed other spiritualist issues in his Case for Spirit Photography (1922), Pheneas Speaks (1927), and a two-volume The History of Spiritualism (1926). Conan Doyle became the world's most renowned proponent of spiritualism, but he faced considerable opposition for his conviction from the magician Harry Houdini (Houdini, Harry) and in a 1920 debate with the humanist Joseph McCabe. Even spiritualists joined in criticizing Conan Doyle's article “The Evidence for Fairies,” published in The Strand Magazine in 1921, and his subsequent book The Coming of the Fairies (1922), in which he voiced support for the claim that two young girls, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, had photographed actual fairies that they had seen in the Yorkshire village of Cottingley.

      Conan Doyle died in Windlesham, his home in Crowborough, Sussex, and at his funeral, his family and members of the spiritualist community celebrated rather than mourned the occasion of his passing beyond the veil. On July 13, 1930, thousands of people filled London's Royal Albert Hall for a séance during which Estelle Roberts, the spiritualist medium, claimed to have contacted Sir Arthur.

      Conan Doyle detailed what he valued most in life in his autobiography, Memories and Adventures (1924), and the importance that books held for him in Through the Magic Door (1907).

Philip K. Wilson

Additional Reading
Richard Lancelyn Green and John Michael Gibson, A Bibliography of A. Conan Doyle (1983), is a superlative, scrupulously detailed work. Jon L. Lellenberg (ed.), The Quest for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1987), reviews 13 major biographies of Conan Doyle. Among the biographies Lellenberg discusses are John Lamond, Arthur Conan Doyle: A Memoir (1931, reprinted 1972), an apologia for spiritualism; and Pierre Nordon, Conan Doyle (1966; originally published in French, 1964). Daniel Stashower, Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle (1999), is an accessible and readable life. Doyle's medical career is addressed in Ely Liebow, Dr. Joe Bell: Model for Sherlock Holmes (1982); and Alvin E. Rodin and Jack D. Key, Medical Casebook of Doctor Arthur Conan Doyle (1984). Kelvin I. Jones, Conan Doyle and the Spirits: The Spiritualist Career of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1989), details how his conviction of spiritualism expanded from a casual interest to the passion that engulfed his life.Philip K. Wilson

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Universalium. 2010.

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