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London's PeopleArthur Conan-Doyle
Posted on Jun 11, 2002 - 01:51 PM by Bill McCann

Remembered now as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle qualified in medicine at Edinburgh, served as ship's doctor on a Greenland Whaler and had an unsuccessful medical practice in Southsea. He turned to writing to fill the hours spent in the consulting rooms that were never visited by patients.


Remembered chiefly as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh on May 22nd 1859 of Irish parentage. At the age of nine he was sent to the Jesuit preparatory school of Hodder in Lancashire and two year later he moved to the Jesuit secondary school of Stoneyhurst. His years there do not appear to have been particularly happy ones and by the time he left it he had rejected Catholicism and became an agnostic. After Stoneyhurst he spent another year with the Jesuits in Feldkirch in Austria.

From 1876 to 1881 he studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh. During his studentship he took a number of jobs as a medical assistant, one of which saw him serve as ship's doctor on a Greenland whaler. Immediately after he completed his term at Edinburgh, he again served as a ship's doctor - this time on a voyage to the west coast of Africa.

In 1882 he joined George Turnavine Budd in a medical practice in Plymouth but later moved to Southsea on his own. In 1885 he married Louise Hawkins, whose constant poor health was to lead to frequent domestic upheavals in their lives. In 1886 he began to develop an interest in psychic studies following meetings which he had attended in Southsea. It was during this period that he developed the character of Sherlock Holmes who made his first appearance in A Study in Scarlet, which appeared in Beeton's Christmas Annual for 1887. In 1889 he published his first historical Novel Micah Clarke and was commissioned to write a second Sherlock Holmes adventure ( The Sign of the Four). In 1890 he went to Vienna to study the eye and returned to London in the spring of 1891 setting up an eye practice at 2 Upper Wimpole Street, now Devonshire Place.

The practice was a failure however and Doyle concentrated on his writing. He later wrote that "Every morning I walked from the lodgings at Montague Place, reached my consulting rooms at 10 and sat there until three or four with never a ring to disturb my serenity." The Strand Magazine was launched in January 1891. It operated a policy of no serialisation and Doyle decided to find a new method of approaching the art of short story writing. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes resulted and initiated his long association with the magazine. However, Doyle felt that the Holmes stories took his "mind from better things" and resolved to kill off his hero. The Final Problem, the adventure which was to bring the news of Holmes's death to a horrified nation, appeared in The Strand in December 1893. Ten years later, Doyle was compelled to revive him.

Doyle served as a physician in the Boer War (1899-1902). After the war there was a world-wide outbreak of condemnation of Britain's conduct and Doyle answered this with his pamphlet The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct, which was widely translated. As a result he was knighted and appointed Deputy-Lieutenant of Surrey in 1902. He twice stood for Parliament but failed to be elected. In 1903 he championed the case of George Edalji, falsely imprisoned for writing anonymous letters threatening his own family. In 1910 he became involved in a second case of injustice, this time that of Oscar Slater, a German Jew, wrongfully accused of murder. The case was long and protracted, with Slater serving an eighteen-year term of imprisonment until finally, in 1927, he was released and awarded 6,000 compensation. Doyle described Slater as "not a very desirable member of society", but he nevertheless pursued the case as vigorously as that of Edalji.

Doyle married for a second time in 1907. He had met his new wife, Jean Leckie as early as 1897 and the couple had maintained a respectable friendship throughout his first wife's long illness. They moved to Sussex and spent their remaining years at Windlesham. In 1912 Conan Doyle was to introduce another famous character into the world of literature with the appearance of Professor Challenger in The Lost World. At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 Doyle was instrumental in forming the local volunteer force which was shortly to be re-formed as an official body. Between 1915 and 1920 he wrote his six-volume history of The British Campaign in France and Flanders working, during the war years, as a war journalist on the British, French and Italian fronts.

By 1916, Doyle's explorations into psychic matters had convinced him that he should devote the final years of his life to the advancement of Spiritualism. This became his religion and he traveled widely on lecture tours in Australia, America, Canada, and South Africa. In 1922 he declared the famous Cottingley Fairy photographs to be genuine and was accused of credulity. Following a tour of Scandinavia and Holland in 1929, Doyle returned to England exhausted, and suffered a heart attack. He remained weak and ill for several months and died at home on 7 July 1930.

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