Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, physician, novelist, poet, and detective story writer, creator of the unforgettable master sleuth Sherlock Holmes, was born in Edinburgh, on the 22nd of May, 1859.
Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born at Picardy Place, in Edinburgh. From the age of nine, Doyle was educated in a Jesuit boarding school and, by the age of fourteen, had learned sufficient French to be able to read Jules Verne in the original language. During this time Doyle came to loath the bigotry and lost his Catholic faith, but the training of the Jesuits deeply influenced his thought. It was during these difficult years that Arthur realised his talent for storytelling, as he was often found captivating fellow students with amazing stories.
He attended Stonyhurst College, graduating in 1876, and was later to use friends and teachers as models for characters in the Holmes stories, amongst them two boys named Moriarty. Family tradition should have dictated an artistic career, yet Arthur decided to follow medicine, influenced by his mother’s lodger, a Dr. Waller, who had trained at the University of Edinburgh, which is where Arthur duly went.
When he was in his third year of medical studies, adventure came knocking, and he left for the Arctic Circle as ship's surgeon on the whaler ‘Hope’. Doyle returned to his studies, in the autumn of 1880, without much enthusiasm and a year later he obtained his Bachelor of Medicine and Master of Surgery degree. On this occasion, he drew a sketch of himself receiving his diploma, with the caption; ‘Licensed to Kill’.
Dr. Arthur Doyle's first gainful employment after his graduation was as a medical officer on the steamer ‘Mayumba’. Unfortunately, he didn’t much like and was soon home in Blighty. His next employment was an infamous stint with an unscrupulous doctor in Plymouth. After near bankruptcy, he left for Southsea, to open his own practice, which, by the end of the third year, was beginning to earn him a comfortable income. However, until 1891, he divided his time between trying to be a good doctor and struggling to become a recognised author.
As a young medical student in Edinburgh, Doyle had met a number of future authors who were also attending the university, including James Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson. However, the man who most influenced and impressed him was, without a doubt, his teacher and mentor, Dr. Joseph Bell. The good doctor, a legend at the medical school, was a master at observation, logic, deduction, and diagnosis, and all of these qualities were to be found later, in the persona of Doyle’s celebrated detective.
Another influence on Doyle becoming a writer was his mother, Mary, who was herself a master storyteller. Doyle once wrote about his mother's gift of "sinking her voice to a horror stricken whisper" when she reached the culminating point of a story. Arthur's touching description of his mother is poignantly described in his biography, "In my early childhood, as far as I can remember anything at all, the vivid stories she would tell me stand out so clearly that they obscure the real facts of my life”.
Arthur’s first published story was ‘The Mystery of Sasassa Valley’, which was published in an Edinburgh magazine called ‘Chamber's Journal’, which had also published Thomas Hardy's first work. By the time his second story, ‘The American Tale’, was published in ‘London Society’, he was to write, "It was in this year that I first learned that shillings might be earned in other ways than by filling phials”. However, the best was yet to come.
Over three weeks, in March, 1886, Conan Doyle wrote the novel, which catapulted him to fame. It was originally entitled ‘A Tangled Skein’ and the two main characters were called Sheridan Hope and Ormond Sacker. Less than two years later, this novel was published in Beeton's Christmas Annual, of 1887, under the title ‘A Study in Scarlet’. The characters had become Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson. It was published in book form, in 1888, and Conan Doyle would go on to write fifty-five more stories and four novels starring the immortal Holmes.
Sherlock Holmes's literary forefather was Edgar Allan Poe's detective, C. Auguste Dupin. However, the characterization of Holmes and his ability of ingenious deductive reasoning was based on the real life person of Joseph Bell. Another model for the detective was Eugène Francois Vidoq, a former criminal, who became the first chief of the Sûreté on the principle of 'set a thief to catch a thief’. Dr. Watson, the good natured if bumbling narrator of the ‘Holmes’ stories, and the master criminal Professor Moriarty, are also equally brilliant creations. Doyle is said to have based the relationship between Holmes and his sidekick, Dr Watson, on Cervantes' Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and James Boswell's conversations with Dr Samuel Johnson.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's now iconic mastermind sleuth and his companion, Dr. Watson, redefined the detective genre. Conan Doyle's medical training under Dr. Joseph Bell and his practical experience as a doctor are the foundation for Holmes's methods of deductive reasoning. "It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth," he wrote in ‘The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet’.
Less well known is the list of his remaining literary achievements, including Sir Nigel, which a tale of medieval knights in armour, from which the following is a quote; "The Scotch knights have no masters in the world, and he who can hold his own with the best of them, be it a Douglas, a Murray or a Seaton, has nothing more to learn."
In his introduction to Sir Nigel, Doyle wrote, “I am aware that there are incidents which may strike the modern reader as brutal and repellent. It is useless, however, to draw the Twentieth Century and label it the Fourteenth. It was a sterner age, and men's code of morality, especially in matters of cruelty, was very different. The fantastic graces of Chivalry lay upon the surface of life, but beneath it was a half-savage population, fierce and animal, with little ruth or mercy. It was a raw, rude England, full of elemental passions, and redeemed only by elemental virtues. Such I have tried to draw it.”
Conan Doyle served in the Boer War as a physician, and he was knighted in 1902. During World War I, he wrote ‘History of the British Campaign in France and Flanders’ as a tribute to the bravery of British soldiers. By the 1920's, he was profoundly interested in spiritualism, which does seem a strange concern for the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Whatever you might make of that, the author went to meet his ‘maker’ on the 7th of July, 1930.