Though he would die a man famous the world over, Arthur Conan Doyle’s life began humbly. He was born on this day in British history, 22 May 1859. His father was an alcoholic, and his mother struggled to support the family. Luckily for young Arthur, he had uncles who were willing to fund an education. Had Doyle not received schooling as a lad, who knows whether the world’s most famous fictional character would have ever come to be? Before he began writing, however, Doyle studied medicine, much as a certain Dr. Watson had done. It was while in medical school at the University of Edinburgh that Doyle began writing short stories.
Following completion of medical school, Doyle took several jobs as a practicing physician. One of them was as a ship’s surgeon during a long-term voyage, but Doyle continued to write during his spare time. By 1882, Doyle had settled in Plymouth and opened his own medical practice. He supposedly had less than £10 to his name when he opened shop, and since the customers refused to darken his door, Doyle spent much of his time at the office writing. He must have managed to eek out a living because he kept writing and was able to publish several novels, though none of them sold for much money.
It took four years for Doyle to publish his first significant piece, which he’d entitled A Study in Scarlet. It was in 1886 that this story first introduced the world to Dr. John Watson and Mr. Sherlock Holmes. He made £25 from A Study in Scarlet and continued to write stories about the fictional duo. It is widely believed that Doyle loosely based the London detective on a university professor he’d once studied under, a man named Joseph Bell. Bell had first acquainted Doyle to the theories of induction and observation as bases for measuring men in a number of ways. These are the traits which the modern world now associates with the super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes.
Doyle began to write shorter stories involving the detective pair, many of which were published in The Strand. In 1893, he continued as a practicing physician, though by then he’d traveled some and moved his shop to London. It was near the end of 1893 that Doyle killed Sherlock Holmes. The plunge taken by the detective and his arch-nemesis, Moriarty, at the Reichenbach Falls has become legendary within the literary world. Doyle felt that some of his other ventures were more beneficial and that Holmes had simply become a distraction. The public furor that ensued upon revelation of Holmes’ death was unprecedented, as the Holmes stories were some of the first über-successful fictional works published in the magazine form easily accessible to the masses.
Doyle, however, ignored the outcry and moved on with his life. He wrote several works of historical fiction, none of which attainted the measure of success that the Holmes stories had seen. Doyle spent several years in South Africa, serving as a doctor during the Boer War. He wrote a book detailing the war in South Africa and personally believed it to be the cause of his knighthood by King Edward VII. Within several years of returning to England, however, Doyle succumbed to the pressure of his readership and resurrected Holmes to roam the streets of London once again. The first story after the hiatus was called The Hound of the Baskervilles, one of my personal favorites.
Though he’d made a fortune thanks to his fictional characters, Doyle still sought fulfillment. During his life he’d been active in politics, and he’d even personally intervened in a case of unjust conviction. Apparently Doyle possessed some of the investigative skills for which his creation had become known, for Doyle helped exonerate two men who’d been unjustly imprisoned. He personally investigated the two unrelated cases after the men had been imprisoned and uncovered evidence that conclusively proved their innocence.
Later in his life, Doyle was caught up in the spiritualist trend that enveloped England. After his wife and son died in 1906 and 1918, respectively, Doyle fell into a deep depression. The pursuit that helped him overcome the darkness was a pursuit of proof that the afterlife does exist. In particular, Doyle was fascinated with the idea of spirits on the earth. As a result, he joined the famous Ghost Club, and even wrote several books dedicated to the subject, The Coming of the Fairies and The History of Spiritualism. In 1930, Doyle died of a heart attack at the age of 71. There is no doubt that Doyle’s stories heavily influenced the development of fictional literature and still influence popular culture today. His characters live on in popular imagination and his pioneering work in crime fiction set the stage for much of the popular fiction of the 20th century, into today.