The Eventful Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Best known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle led a life every bit as interesting as the exploits of Holmes and Watson.

Jul 15, 2023By Catherine Dent, MA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English Literature

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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is remembered today as an author and the creator of Sherlock Holmes, one of the most iconic fictional characters of all time. This, however, was just one role Doyle undertook during his long and eventful life – and one that he came to resent as time moved on. As well as being a writer, he was also an accomplished (though failed) doctor, a keen sportsman, and a would-be politician, among many other things. Here, we will explore the story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, tracing the highs and lows of his extraordinary life.


A Difficult Start: Doyle’s Early Life

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Photograph of a four-year-old Arthur Conan Doyle, via Conan Doyle Collection


Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on 22nd May 1859 to Mary Doyle (née Foley), an Irish Catholic, and Charles Altamont Doyle, who was born in England but was of Irish Catholic heritage. His father came from an artistic family and followed the family tradition, working as an artist and a civil servant, though his fame would come to be eclipsed by his son’s.


By 1864, however, the family’s fortunes were in disarray, and the Doyle family itself was scattered across Edinburgh due to Charles Altamont Doyle’s struggles with alcohol addiction. During this time, Arthur Conan Doyle stayed with the reformer Mary Burton, who was the aunt of a school friend. Three years later, the family was once again living together under one roof, though in vastly reduced circumstances, taking up residence in an Edinburgh tenement flat.


Due to his father’s reduced circumstances and failing physical and mental health, Arthur Conan Doyle’s education was paid for by his comparatively affluent relatives. He attended private Roman Catholic schools in England, the first being the Jesuit preparatory school in Stonyhurst, Lancashire, from 1868 to 1870. From here, he went on to Stonyhurst College (of which he had few happy memories) before leaving in 1875 to spend a year studying at the Stella Matutina in Fedlkirch, Austria, to improve his German language skills. Though the Stella Matutina was also a Jesuit school, it was considerably less strict than his previous Lancashire schools had been, and it was here that he lost his faith and became an agnostic.

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Hard Luck: Doyle’s Medical Career & First Forays into Writing

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Photograph featuring Arthur Conan Doyle (third from left) aboard the Eira arctic exploration ship, 1880, via Conan Doyle Collection


After leaving the Stella Matutina, Doyle enrolled at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, where he also studied botany at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh alongside his medical degree. In addition, he wrote fiction as a medical student, with his first published story, “The Mystery of Sasassa Valley,” appearing in Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal in 1879. During that same year, he also published his first academic article, “Gelsemium as a Poison,” in the British Medical Journal.


Thus, we can see how Doyle would later put his medical training to use in constructing murder mysteries for Holmes and Watson to solve. He also famously based Sherlock Holmes on his Edinburgh university lecturer Joseph Bell. The likeness between the two was immediately obvious to fellow Edinburgh man of letters Robert Louis Stevenson, who was a friend of Bell.


A year after these publications appeared, Doyle worked as a doctor on the Greenland Whaler Hope of Peterhead in 1880. The following year, he graduated with a Bachelor of Medicine and a Master of Surgery from the University of Edinburgh. His time aboard the Hope of Peterhead had presumably given him a taste for life on the open sea, however, and he soon put his master’s degree to good use by becoming the ship’s surgeon on the SS Mayumba on a voyage to the coast of West Africa.


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Photograph of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by Walter Benington, 1914, via BBC Scotland


Upon returning to England in 1882, he made two abortive attempts to set up a medical practice in Plymouth and Portsmouth, respectively. (A decade later, he faced similarly bad luck when trying to set up a practice in London). He returned, therefore, to the University of Edinburgh, where he was awarded his MD in 1885, writing his dissertation on tabes dorsalis. While he struggled to make a living as a professional doctor, it is clear that Doyle was a highly intelligent man of science who was fully engaged in the medical debates of his time. He was a keen proponent of compulsory vaccination, for example, and was deeply interested in ophthalmology.


He had a similarly difficult time trying to make money from his writing. Though he made his name through his writings on Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, the first novels Doyle wrote are, in fact, The Mystery of Cloomber (which was not published until 1888) and The Narrative of John Smith, which he did not finish and was only published posthumously in 2011.


After writing A Study in Scarlet – the first work to feature Holmes and Watson – in just three weeks, however, he did manage to secure a publication deal with Ward, Lock & Co., but, as a young and relatively unknown writer, he was paid just £25 for the story and all rights to it. In 1887, the novel was published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual. Having received positive reviews, a sequel was commissioned by Ward, Lock & Co., which in turn led to the serial publication of The Sign of the Four in Lippincott’s Magazine in 1890. By this time, however, Doyle had become increasingly aware of the exploitation of his work under Ward, Lock & Co., with whom he severed ties.


This Sporting Life

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Reproduction of a pastel drawing of Arthur Conan Doyle by M. Menpes, 1901, via History Today


One aspect of Doyle’s life that is less well-known is his keen interest in sports. His main sporting passion was cricket, playing ten first-class matches for the Marylebone Cricket Club between 1899 and 1907. He also played for amateur cricket teams, including the Authors XI, which also included P.G. Wodehouse, A.A. Milne, and fellow Scott J.M. Barrie.


Perhaps more surprisingly, Doyle established the Undershaw Rifle Club after installing a 100-yard shooting range at his home. The range was open to men in the local area, as Doyle believed that the recent Boer War had demonstrated that British marksmanship left a lot to be desired. (In 1900, Doyle had been a volunteer physician in the Langman Field Hospital in Bloemfontein during the Second Boer War and went on to write The Great Boer War and The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct that same year. It was for this, Doyle believed, he was knighted in 1902). He would later go on to be part of the Rifle Clubs Committee of the National Rifle Association.


As well as this, Doyle was also interested in boxing and bodybuilding. While he was an amateur boxer, his interest in bodybuilding was that of an outsider rather than an active participant. In fact, in 1901, he was among the three judges of the first-ever major bodybuilding competition, held at the Royal Albert Hall in London.


And, like many others in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Doyle was also interested in the Alps and Alpine sports, especially skiing. In December 1894, his article “An Alpine Pass on ‘Ski’” was printed in The Strand Magazine. Here, he outlined his own passion for skiing, waxing lyrical on the sublime alpine landscape that could be appreciated from the slopes.



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Postcard of Sir Roger Casement, printed in Dublin in 1916 following the Easter Rising and Casement’s execution, via Warwick Digital Collections


Though born in Edinburgh, Doyle was of Irish Catholic descent and, though he later turned to mysticism, was brought up Roman Catholic. The question of Irish independence was a key political issue of the time, with Doyle (a Liberal Unionist) favoring British rule in Ireland.


Doyle, however, was a supporter of the campaign movement for the reform of the Congo Free State, spearheaded by the journalist E.D. Morel and the diplomat and Irish nationalist Roger Casement. Through his support of this cause, he came to know both Morel and Casement.


Following his work in Africa, Casement returned to Ireland in 1904 and joined the Gaelic League and, a year later, joined Arthur Griffith’s newly founded Sinn Féin. In support of the 1916 Easter Rising, Casement smuggled German arms and ammunition into Ireland for the rebels’ use. He was subsequently found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. Though Doyle was a unionist, he argued that Casement was mad and so not liable for his actions. Doyle’s pleas were in vain, however, and Casement was hanged.


In the lead-up to the First World War, Doyle donated ten shillings to the British Brothers’ League, an anti-immigration, proto-fascist pressure group whose views gained traction among a British public gripped by Germanophobia. However, Doyle was also involved in the case of Oscar Slater, a German Jewish man wrongly accused of murdering an 82-year-old woman in Glasgow in 1908. In 1912, Doyle (who, in 1903, founded the Crimes Club, in which members discussed crimes, criminals, and detection) published The Case of Oscar Slater, in which he marshaled the available evidence to argue that Slater was innocent. He continued to raise the matter publicly and paid the majority of the legal fees Slater incurred during his successful 1928 appeal.


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Death & Legacy

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Photograph of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, c. 1904, via Sweet Cherry Publishing


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died suddenly of a heart attack at age 71 at his home in East Sussex. In many ways, his life was a series of apparent contradictions. Educated at private, fee-paying schools, his childhood was marked by financial instability due to his father’s ongoing struggles with alcoholism. An accomplished and trained physician, he failed to establish a career in medicine, and after finding fame as an author, he came to resent his greatest creation. He struggled to decide where he stood on the issue of freemasonry, joining and abandoning the order on more than one occasion. And while on one occasion he publicly supported the far-right and deeply xenophobic British Brothers’ League, he was also appalled by the miscarriage of justice in Oscar Slater’s case, which led to a German-born Jewish man being imprisoned for twenty years for a crime he had not committed. Doyle, then, was not an uncomplicated figure, and his life was a tale of extreme highs and lows that could have rivaled the narrative arc of even his most ambitious works of fiction.

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By Catherine DentMA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English LiteratureCatherine holds a first-class BA from Durham University and an MA with distinction, also from Durham, where she specialized in the representation of glass objects in the work of Virginia Woolf. In her spare time, she enjoys writing fiction, reading, and spending time with her rescue dog, Finn.