Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Author Biography, Books & Facts

Instructor: Debbie Notari
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best known for his mystery series 'The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.' In this lesson, we will learn about the life of this fascinating author.


Doyle's Early Days

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born in 1859 in Edinburgh, Scotland. His family was fairly well-off, at first, and Doyle grew up as an Irish Catholic. Unfortunately, his father was an alcoholic, and this put a strain on the family's finances. Doyle's father was 22 when he married Mary Foley, Doyle's mother, who was 17. She was educated and outgoing. She loved telling suspenseful stories to her children that seemed so true, Doyle grew up not knowing which of his memories was a true-life event and which was a story his mother told him. No doubt, these stories helped ignite Doyle's own gift for writing mystery and suspense.

His Schooling

When Doyle was just nine, he was shipped off to boarding school in England. After two years, he transferred to another school, Stonyhurst College, where he attended for the next five years. It was a difficult time for Doyle, not only because he was so far from home, but because he was treated harshly by the other boys. The school also punished students severely for any misbehavior - how terrible for a young boy!

However, during this time, Doyle developed his own storytelling gift and the younger students enjoyed listening to him. Later, Doyle wrote about these years, saying, 'Perhaps it was good for me that the times were hard, for I was wild, full-blooded and a trifle reckless. But the situation called for energy and application so that one was bound to try to meet it. My mother had been so splendid that I could not fail her.' In 1876, Doyle graduated Stonyhurst College at the age of 17 and decided to give himself the middle name 'Conan.'

His First Career

Surprisingly, this gifted writer started out as a doctor! He received his medical training at Edinburgh University. One of his good friends at the university was another future author, Robert Louis Stevenson. One of Doyle's first medical experiences before he actually graduated included being a doctor on a whaling vessel called Hope; later, after he graduated, he was the physician on a ship named Mayumba that traveled regularly from Liverpool, England to West Africa. When Doyle received his medical degree, he drew a picture of himself and captioned it 'Licensed to Kill.' He had a sense of humor, to be sure!

Spiritual Decisions

It was while he was at the University of Edinburgh that Doyle became involved in a religion that believed in psychics. It was called 'Spiritualism.' Doyle was drawn to the paranormal. He actually wrote about the religion in an attempt to gain followers, and we do know that he completely turned away from his Catholic upbringing during this time.

Early Works

Doyle began writing while he was at the University of Edinburgh. Some of his first short stories were 'The Mystery of Sasassa Valley' and 'Captain of the Pole Star.' He began to see that he could make an income doing something he really loved. He eventually gave up practicing medicine and poured all of his energy into writing and his religion.

Becoming Recognized

After marrying Louisa Hawkins in 1885, Conan became famous for his novel A Tangled Skein. A few years later, having revised the novel, calling the main characters Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, the novel was republished under the name A Study in Scarlet. The world loved Sherlock Holmes, but Doyle didn't think the Holmes stories were his best works. Nonetheless, most everything else he wrote was quickly forgotten.

It was his novel The Sign of Four that made Sherlock Holmes famous for all time. When he finished the novel, Doyle recalls: 'When I wrote the last line, I remember that I cried: 'Well, I'll never beat that' and threw the inky pen at the opposite wall.'

A Setback

Doyle still clung to the idea that he might practice medicine. So he went to Vienna to become an expert in ophthalmology. When he once again opened his practice, he didn't attract any patients. Doyle finally realized that he needed to let go of his medical career once and for all and write. He concentrated on his Sherlock Holmes stories, which were very well loved. In the meantime, he had a daughter, and then a son, but his wife became very ill with tuberculosis. It was during this time that Doyle's father died, and with his wife so ill, he became depressed.


Doyle seemed to need a challenge, and so he signed up to be a doctor in the Boer War. He penned an excellent work entitled The Great Boer War and pamphlets defending the war. Doyle was knighted for these writings. Doyle even tried to run for office, but lost and went back to writing. While still caring for his ill wife, Louisa, Doyle fell in love with Jean Leckie, and really began dating her secretly. This dating went on for nine years! He still loved Louisa, and when she died in 1906, he once again became depressed, but he married Jean in 1907.

The Rest of His Life

Throughout the rest of his life, Doyle continued to write Sherlock Holmes stories and to travel with his wife, Jean. He tried politics again but failed. He wanted to fight in World War I, but was denied. He always seemed to be on the cutting edge of life. In WWI, Doyle lost his beloved son, his brother, a nephew and others. It was a devastating time.

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