Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the brilliant detective Sherlock Holmes, led a robust life worthy of the pages of his fiction. He embarked on daring journeys to the Arctic and the Alps, investigated crimes and—though his most famous character is the paragon of rational thinking—staunchly believed in fairies and spirits. Here are 11 facts about this fascinating, complicated author.
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1859, Conan Doyle was the second of seven surviving children. His father, the artist Charles Doyle, struggled with alcoholism and even stole from his children’s money boxes to fund his addiction. The family’s finances were chronically strained: “We lived in the hardy and bracing atmosphere of poverty,” Conan Doyle wrote in his autobiography. Charles was ultimately committed to an asylum due to his erratic behavior [PDF].
Throughout this domestic turbulence, the author’s mother, Mary Foley Doyle, was a stabilizing force. Conan Doyle credited her with kindling his imagination and flair for storytelling. “In my early childhood, as far as I can remember anything at all, the vivid stories which she would tell me stand out so clearly that they obscure the real facts of my life,” he recalled. “I am sure, looking back, that it was in attempting to emulate these stories of my childhood that I first began weaving dreams myself.”
When he was 17 years old, Conan Doyle began his studies at the University of Edinburgh’s medical school, graduating with Bachelor of Medicine and Master of Surgery degrees in 1881. Four years later, he completed his thesis on tabes dorsalis, a degenerative neurological disease, and earned his M.D. He later traveled to Vienna to study ophthalmology [PDF].
Conan Doyle established a medical practice in the English city of Portsmouth, where he also wrote his first two Sherlock Holmes novels: A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four. Holmes was based in part on one of his professors at medical school, Dr. Joseph Bell, known for his ability to deduce facts about his patients through close observation.
In 1891, Conan Doyle relocated to London to work as an ophthalmologist. The venture was not a resounding success; he would later joke that his rented offices had two waiting rooms: “I waited in the consulting room, and no one waited in the waiting room.” But that left Conan Doyle with ample time to devote to his budding literary career. He soon gave up medicine in favor of writing—a decision that he called “one of the great moments of exultation” in his life.
While in the midst of his medical studies, Conan Doyle accepted a position as a ship’s surgeon on a whaler headed to the Arctic Circle. A hardy young man with an adventurous spirit, he joined his shipmates in hunting seals, not at all deterred by his lack of experience on the ice and frequent tumbles into the freezing waters. Conan Doyle did have some qualms about the slaughter, writing that “those glaring crimson pools upon the dazzling white of the ice fields … did seem a horrible intrusion.” Nevertheless, he found the journey—particularly the whale hunts—exhilarating. “No man who has not experienced it,” Conan Doyle opined, “can imagine the intense excitement of whale fishing.”
The popularity of Sherlock Holmes skyrocketed after Conan Doyle struck a deal with the Strand Magazine to publish a series of short stories featuring the mastermind detective. Readers would line up at newsagents on the days that new issues dropped, and Conan Doyle eventually became one of the highest-paid writers of his day. But he grew exasperated by the public’s love for Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle also wrote historical novels, plays, and poetry, and he felt that his detective fiction overshadowed these other, more serious works. “I have had such an overdose of [Holmes] that I feel towards him as I do towards pâté de foie gras, of which I once ate too much, so that the name of it gives me a sickly feeling to this day,” the author quipped.
In the 1893 story “The Final Problem,” Conan Doyle killed off Holmes, sending him plunging to his death over the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. Fans were devastated; more than 20,000 of them canceled their subscriptions to the Strand in protest. Conan Doyle did not publish another Holmes story for eight years, ending his strike with The Hound of the Baskervilles, which takes place before Holmes’s death. In 1903, prompted by a tremendous offer from British and American publishers, Conan Doyle decided to resurrect his much-loved sleuth. Over the course of his career, he featured Holmes in 56 stories and four novels—now known to fans as the “Canon.”
In 1893, Conan Doyle’s first wife, Louisa, was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The couple decided to head to Davos, in the Swiss Alps, hoping that the crisp, clear air would be beneficial to Louisa. Her health did improve, for a time, and Conan Doyle decided to take up skiing, a Norwegian sport that was new to Switzerland and virtually unknown in Britain. He wrote a humorous article in the Strand about his attempts to master skiing and his daring journey over the Furka Pass, which soars 8000 feet above sea level. The article was republished multiple times and drew attention to the Swiss Alps as a skiing destination. Today, a plaque in Davos honors Conan Doyle for “bringing this new sport and the attractions of the Swiss Alps in winter to the world.”
Conan Doyle began exploring mystical ideas about spirits and the afterlife as a young doctor. In later life, he became one of the world’s most prominent advocates of Spiritualism, a movement rooted in the belief that the souls of the dead can communicate with the living, usually through a medium. Spiritualism took root in Britain during the Victorian era and continued to flourish in the years after WWI, when many families were eager to connect with lost loved ones. Conan Doyle’s own brother and son died during the influenza pandemic that swept the world in the wake of the Great War, and the author believed that they reached out to him during séances.
He wrote books on Spiritualism, debated the subject with skeptics and traveled the world delivering lectures on the Spiritualist cause, which he described as the “most important thing in the world, and the particular thing which the human race in its present state of development needs more than anything else.”
In 1920, a pair of startling photographs came to Conan Doyle’s attention. The images appeared to show two schoolgirls, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, posing with fairies by a stream in the English village of Cottingley. After conducting what he believed to be a thorough investigation, Conan Doyle became convinced that the photographs were genuine, and wrote two articles and a book on the “Cottingley Fairies.” With a renowned author championing them, the photos became a sensation. Conan Doyle was widely ridiculed by those who believed the images were fake, but he remained steadfast; he hoped that the photographs would propel an incredulous public to “admit that there is a glamour and mystery to life” and, by extension, to accept the “spiritual message” that he worked tirelessly to promote.
In 1983, Wright and Griffiths finally confessed that the photographs were a hoax. The “fairies” were simply paper cutouts, copied from a children’s book, and propped up with hat pins. They had only meant to trick their parents; Wright later said that she and Griffiths were too embarrassed to admit the truth once their story was believed by the famous Conan Doyle.
Conan Doyle met Harry Houdini in 1920, while the famed magician was visiting England. They bonded over Spiritualism; Houdini, though fairly certain that mediums were tricksters and frauds, was at that time willing to be convinced otherwise. For his part, Conan Doyle believed that Houdini possessed psychic powers.
When Conan Doyle traveled to America in 1922, the friends met up in Atlantic City. Houdini agreed to participate in a séance with Conan Doyle and his second wife, Jean, who claimed she could channel the spirits of the dead. But Houdini quickly came to suspect that the séance was a sham. Jean filled multiple pages with automatic writing that she said came from Houdini’s deceased mother—though his mother could barely speak English. Houdini also found it curious that Jean’s automatic writing included the sign of a cross, considering that his mother was Jewish. The episode caused a rift between the friends, and they argued both privately and publicly over the legitimacy of medium cases.
Fueled by a sense of patriotism after the outbreak of the Second Boer War, Conan Doyle traveled to Bloemfontein, South Africa, in 1900 to volunteer as a doctor in a field hospital. There he encountered a grim scene; Bloemfontein was in the grips of a typhoid epidemic, the hospital was overwhelmed with sick and dying patients, and sanitary conditions were abysmal [PDF]. But his conviction in the war did not flag, even as the conflict dragged on, became increasingly brutal, and began to lose support in Britain and beyond. Indignant over reports of British atrocities, Conan Doyle published a pamphlet defending his country’s actions in South Africa. He was knighted by King Edward VII in 1902, largely in honor of this influential work.
In 1903, a solicitor named George Edalji was found guilty of mutilating a horse and writing a series of menacing anonymous letters in a rural parish. The evidence against him was unconvincing—the letters had been sent to his own family, for one thing—and three years later he was released from prison, without a pardon. Edalji wrote to Conan Doyle, hoping the creator of Sherlock Holmes would help clear his name. Conan Doyle visited the scene of the crimes, met with Edalji, and was certain of his innocence.
He noted, among other things, that Edalji was so near-sighted that it would have been impossible for him to sneak across the countryside, attacking livestock in the dead of night. And he recognized that racial prejudice was likely at play; Edalji, whose father was of Parsee origin, “must assuredly have [seemed] a very queer man to the eyes of an English village,” the author wrote in an article arguing that Edalji had been wrongfully accused. Conan Doyle also sent a barrage of letters to the chief constable in charge of the case, proffering new evidence and theories of other suspects. Edalji was ultimately pardoned, but was not given financial compensation for the miscarriage of justice against him.
Conan Doyle also campaigned on behalf of Oscar Slater, a German-Jewish bookmaker who was convicted of murdering a wealthy woman in Glasgow. Though Slater had an alibi, police homed in on him as the culprit, and it would later emerge that key evidence was withheld during the trial. Conan Doyle was a vocal participant in the campaign advocating for Slater’s release from prison; in 1912, he published The Case of Oscar Slater, which highlighted grave flaws in the investigation and prosecution. His plea failed to sway the authorities, but Conan Doyle continued to pressure politicians and even pay for Slater’s legal fees. Slater was set free in 1927, having served more than 18 years in prison.
Conan Doyle died of a heart attack on July 7, 1930, at the age of 71. Three hundred people attended the funeral at his country home, and the atmosphere was uplifting, rather than somber. The mourners did not wear black and the blinds of the house were not drawn. “We know that it is only the natural body that we are committing to the ground,” his wife Jean told friends. On July 13, thousands of people packed into the Royal Albert Hall in London for a memorial service. During the ceremony, Estelle Roberts, one of Conan Doyle’s favorite mediums, gazed at a chair reserved for the writer and proclaimed: “He is here.”