Arthur Conan Doyle was born on May 22, 1859, in Edinburgh, Scotland. As a young man he seemed destined for a career in medicine. In 1876 he attended the University of Edinburgh Medical School. There he met Joseph Bell, whose deductive powers and dramatic flair he would later embody in the character of Sherlock Holmes. In the early 1880s he served as a medical officer on an Arctic whaling ship and ship’s surgeon on a voyage to West Africa. By the summer of 1882, he had settled in the town of Southsea in the south of England. In 1885 he received his medical degree. Even after he was a well-established writer, he continued to pursue his medical education, becoming an eye specialist. His medical practice was unsuccessful, leaving him plenty of free time to write.
His first story was “The Mystery of Sarassa Valley,” published in October 1879 in Chamber’s Journal. He had trouble finding a publisher for his first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, which eventually appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887. It and its successor, the novel The Sign of Four, published in 1890, were not popular at first. Conan Doyle himself regarded these early Holmes novels as mere entertainments to bring in some money while he concentrated on historical novels. He hoped to become a new Walter Scott, who had earned fame and respect with such novels as Ivanhoe (1820).
In 1891 Conan Doyle agreed to supply the new magazine the Strand with a series of Sherlock Holmes short stories. “A Scandal in Bohemia” appeared in the magazine’s July 1891 issue and was a popular sensation. For the rest of his life Conan Doyle was pressured by publishers and the general public to write more stories about Sherlock Holmes.
He tried to stop writing the stories a number of times. After his initial contract with the Strand was fulfilled, he demanded an outrageously large amount of money for new stories, hoping that the Strand would refuse. Instead, the magazine eagerly met his asking price. Then he tried killing Holmes off in “The Final Problem,” the last of his second run of Holmes stories for the Strand. He received hate mail for killing Holmes and was besieged by publishers offering him huge sums of money to write more about Holmes. An American publisher finally offered more money than Conan Doyle could resist, and he agree to write The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Writing about Holmes offered Conan Doyle a ready way to earn money for the rest of his life. But it was the character of Professor Challenger rather than Sherlock Holmes that was Conan Doyle’s favorite creation. In 1912 he published a science-fiction adventure, The Lost World, featuring the professor.
The death of his son during World War I (1914-1918) led Conan Doyle to seek out spiritualists and inspired in him a religious dedication to the spiritualist movement. This embarrassed friends and business associates. Spiritualism found its way into nearly all of Conan Doyle’s writings of the 1920s, and even the hardheaded Professor Challenger is converted in The Land of Mist. Conan Doyle died on July 7, 1930, at Crowborough, Sussex.
Many critics have pointed out the similarities between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and their creator Arthur Conan Doyle. In real life, Conan Doyle sometimes employed detection techniques similar to those of Holmes to solve mysterious crimes. In the most famous such case, he proved that George Edalji, a lawyer, had been wrongfully convicted of a crime he could not have committed. Conan Doyle used such evidence as Edalji’s astigmatism and the difference between the mud of roads and that of fields to demonstrate beyond doubt that Edalji was innocent and to expose the real criminal-a feat of detection worthy of Holmes. In addition, Dr. Watson shares characteristics with Conan Doyle. Both were robust men who were physically active for most of their lives. Both were physicians who served overseas. The tall and thicknecked Watson fits the description of Conan Doyle himself. Even so, readers should not take the similarities between the characters and the author beyond the superficial. Holmes and Watson are well-imagined figures with traits all their own.