by Belk, Patrick Scott
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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a Scottish physician, historian, best-selling novelist, controversial spiritualist, and an outspoken critic of the Belgian Congo. He was born in Edinburgh on May 22, 1859, and he attended medical school in the city from 1876 to 1881. Following his term at university, Doyle signed on as a ship’s surgeon aboard the S.S. Mayumba, bound for the west coast of Africa. He practiced medicine in Plymouth and then Southsea for two years (1882-1884), but with limited success. In his spare time, Doyle wrote his first novel, The Narrative of John Smith, which remained unpublished until 2011. A Study in Scarlet appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887, and literary recognition came with Micah Clarke, a historical novel published the following year. After a brief period studying ophthalmology in Vienna in 1890, and moving to London to set up practice in 1891, Doyle finally gave up medicine and settled down to pursue writing professionally. He was knighted in 1902.
Doyle is now best remembered for the fifty-six short stories and four novels featuring his fictional “consulting detective” Sherlock Holmes, but he was a terrifically prolific writer besides. His interests ranged freely across multiple subjects, genres, and disciplines, and he wrote his first book at the age of six. The complete bibliography of his writings features over 200 titles that include science-fiction, historical novels, plays, romances, poetry, essays, political pamphlets, and even a six-volume history of the First World War. Because nearly all of his Holmes and Professor Challenger stories were first published in George Newnes’s Strand Magazine, Doyle’s name will be forever associated with that journal, but the majority of his fiction and non-fiction appeared across a broad range of British and American magazines. Some of Doyle’s major venues included American titles like Lippincott’s Monthly (where The Sign of the Four appeared in 1890), Harper’s (The Refugees, 1893), McClure’s (The Clamor of the Arctic, 1894), Collier’s Weekly (The Return of Sherlock Holmes, 1903-1905), and Scribner’s Magazine (Through the Mists, 1910-1911). One of Doyle’s first publications in Scribner’s was the poem “A Forgotten Tale,” illustrated by Howard Pyle, which appeared in the January 1895 issue alongside a poem by Bret Harte. Doyle’s Through the Mists, which appeared in three consecutive issues of Scribner’s, was a series of historical romances that vividly recalled three of the great invasions of world history: the coming of the Huns to Rome, the Saxons’ arrival in Britain, and the Muslim conquest of North Africa and Asia Minor. Each installment of the series—“The Coming of the Huns” (November 1910; 548-53), “The First Cargo” (December 1910; 655-59), and “The Red Star” (January 1911; 24-28)—was beautifully illustrated by N. C. Wyeth, whose color plate for “The First Cargo”—which featured armored Saxons carrying shields and horned helmets—served as the dramatic frontispiece for the magazine’s November 1910 issue.
By that time, Doyle had become one of the most recognizable forces in modern fiction writing. He was also likely the most highly-paid novelist the world over. In 1903, Collier’s Weekly offered him the phenomenal sum of $45,000 for the first North American serial rights to the thirteen short stories in The Return of Sherlock Holmes (which ran in the magazine between September 1903 and January 1905). Only three years earlier, Rudyard Kipling had claimed that title when McClure’s Magazine purchased first North American serial rights to Kim for just $25,000.
Arthur Conan Doyle died of a heart attack on July 7, 1930, at his home in Crowborough, East Sussex, England, at the age of 71. Despite his long and terrifically multi-dimensional career, many obituaries—including the one in The New York Times—focused almost entirely on the author’s high-profile spiritualist activities. Doyle’s controversial public campaign in support of spiritualism and ‘psychic exploration’ had dominated his time, fortune, and public persona throughout the final decade of his life.
—Patrick Scott Belk, The University of Tulsa
- Booth, Marvin. The Doctor and the Detective: A Biography of Arthur Conan Doyle. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000.
- Carr, John Dickson. The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1949.
- Lellenberg, Jon, Daniel Stashower, and Charles Foley, eds. Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters. New York: The Penguin Press, 2007.
- Lycett, Andrew. The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes: The Life and Times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. New York: Free Press, 2007.
- Miller, Russell. The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle: A Biography New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2008.