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Sherlock Holmes outside Baker Street underground station

It’s a fact that Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle (1859 –1930) was a British writer and physician. He was born in Edinburgh. His father – Charles – was born in England, of Irish Catholic descent, and his mother was Irish Catholic – a descendant of the famous Percy family of Northumberland, in the line of Plantagenet. The family scattered because of Charles’ growing alcoholism but came together again, albeit living in squalid conditions. A few years later. Doyle’s father died in 1893. From an early age, Doyle wrote letters to his mother, and many of them have been preserved.

Picture Credit: [Cropped] “NO KNOWN RESTRICTIONS: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1859-1930 (Bain/LOC)” by is marked with CC PDM 1.0

Supported by wealthy uncles, Doyle was sent to the Jesuit preparatory school in Stonyhurst, Lancashire, at age nine in 1868 and two years later to Stonyhurst College for the next seven years. When Doyle graduated from Stonyhurst College, his parents expected that he would follow in his family’s footsteps and study art, so they were surprised when he decided to pursue a medical degree at the University of Edinburgh instead.

From 1875 to 1876, he was educated at a Jesuit school in Austria to perfect his German and broaden his academic horizons, but he later rejected the Catholic faith and became an agnostic and a spiritualist mystic.

Medical Career
Doyle studied medicine from 1876 to 1881 at the University of Edinburgh Medical School. He also studied botany at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh.

While studying, Doyle began writing short stories. On 20th September 1879, he published his first academic article – ‘Gelsemium as a Poison’[1]in the British Medical Journal, which The Daily Telegraph regarded as potentially useful in a 21st century murder investigation.

Doyle graduated with Bachelor of Medicine and Master of Surgery degrees from the University of Edinburgh in 1881 and completed his Doctor of Medicine degree with a dissertation on tabes dorsalis[2] in 1885. Attempts at making a living from medical practice and as an ophthalmologist eluded him – while waiting for patients, Doyle returned to writing fiction.

Writing Career
He created Sherlock Holmes in 1887 for A Study in Scarlet, the first of four novels and fifty-six short stories about the fictional characters Holmes and Dr Watson. The Sherlock Holmes stories are milestones in the field of crime fiction.

At first, Doyle struggled to find a publisher. His first work featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, A Study in Scarlet, was written in three weeks when he was 27 and was accepted for publication by Ward Lock & Co on 20th November 1886, which gave Doyle the paltry sum of £25 (equivalent to around £2,000 today). The piece appeared a year later in the Beeton’s Christmas Annual and received favourable reviews in The Scotsman and the Glasgow Herald.

Robert Louis Stevenson recognised the strong similarity between Joseph Bell (Doyle’s former university teacher) and Sherlock Holmes: Dr. (John) Watson owes his surname, but nothing else, to a Portsmouth medical colleague of Doyle’s, Dr James Watson.

Doyle was a prolific writer: other than the Sherlock Holmes stories, his works include fantasy and science fiction stories about Professor Challenger and humorous stories about the Napoleonic soldier Brigadier Gerard, as well as plays, romances, poetry, non-fiction and historical novels.

Sporting Career
While living in Southsea, Doyle played soccer as a goalkeeper for Portsmouth Association Football Club, an amateur side, under the pseudonym A. C. Smith. He was a keen cricketer, and between 1899 and 1907, he played ten first-class matches for the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC). He also played for the amateur cricket teams the Allahakbarries and the Authors XI alongside fellow writers J. M. Barrie, P. G. Wodehouse and A. A. Milne. His highest score, in 1902 against London County, was 43. As an occasional bowler, he took just one first-class wicket, although one to be proud of as it dismissed the great W. G. Grace.

Doyle was an amateur boxer and a keen golfer – in 1910, he was elected captain of Crowborough Beacon Golf Club in Sussex. He had moved to Little Windlesham house in Crowborough with Jean Leckie, his second wife, and resided there with his family from 1907 until his death in July 1930. All of Doyle’s five children died without children, so there are no living direct descendants.

Political Activities
Doyle served as a volunteer doctor in Bloemfontein between March and June 1900, during the Second Boer War. Later that same year, he wrote a book on the war, The Great Boer War, as well as a short work titled The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct, in which he responded to critics of the UK’s role in that war and argued that its role was justified. The latter work was widely translated, and Doyle believed it was why he was knighted by King Edward VII.

He stood for Parliament twice as a Liberal Unionist: in 1900 in Edinburgh Central; and in 1906 in the Hawick Burghs, and although receiving a decent share of the vote, he was not elected. Doyle was also a fervent advocate of justice and personally investigated two closed cases, which led to two men being exonerated of the crimes of which they were accused.

Freemasonry and Spiritualism
In 1887, at age 27, he was initiated into Freemasonry at the Phoenix Lodge No. 257 in Southsea, but resigned in 1889, returned in 1902, and resigned again in 1911. In 1901, he joined the Lodge of Edinburgh No. 1 (Mary’s Chapel) as an honorary member. He also became an honorary member in 1905 at Lodge Canongate Kilwinning No. 2 (Edinburgh)[3].

As early as 1881, Conan Doyle showed an interest in spiritualism. In 1916, he made a declaration that would impact the rest of his life when he professed his belief in spiritualism. Doyle had held a longstanding interest in mystical subjects and remained fascinated by the idea of paranormal phenomena, even though the strength of his belief in their reality waxed and waned periodically over the years. He found solace in supporting spiritualism’s ideas, particularly to find proof of an afterlife – an existence beyond the grave. In 1887, The Light, a spiritualistic magazine, published an article by Conan Doyle describing a séance that he had attended. In February of 1889, he attended a lecture on mesmerism given by Professor Milo de Meyer. Meyer tried to mesmerise or hypnotise Conan Doyle as part of the lecture but failed[4].

In the last quarter of his life, he gave up his literary career and devoted himself to spreading the spiritualist message throughout the world. He lectured widely on spiritualism in Great Britain, Australia, South Africa, and the United States, during which he covered 55,000 miles and addressed a quarter of a million people. In 1926, he published The History of Spiritualism in two volumes at his own expense.[5]

Doyle wrote many non-fiction spiritualist works – perhaps his most famous was The Coming of the Fairies (1922). Doyle’s two-volume book The History of Spiritualism was published in 1926. In the same year, Doyle laid the foundation stone for a Spiritualist Temple in Camden, London – of the building’s total £600 construction costs, Doyle provided £500.

Doyle on Vaccination and Opthalmology[6]
Doyle was a staunch supporter of compulsory vaccination and wrote several articles advocating the practice and denouncing the views of ‘anti-vaxxers’. ‘Compulsory Vaccination is a letter he wrote on the matter, first published in The Evening Mail (Portsmouth) on 15th July 1887.[7] Doyle described himself as a Sportsman, Writer, Poet, Politician, Justicer, and Spiritualist.

In early 1891, Doyle embarked on the study of ophthalmology in Vienna. He had previously studied at the Portsmouth Eye Hospital to qualify to perform eye tests and prescribe glasses. Vienna had been suggested by his friend Vernon Morris as a place to spend six months and train to be an eye surgeon. But Doyle found it too difficult to understand the German medical terms being used in his classes in Vienna and soon quit his studies there. For the rest of his two-month stay in Vienna, he pursued other activities, such as ice skating with his wife Louisa and drinking with Brinsley Richards of the London Times. He also wrote The Doings of Raffles Haw.

After visiting Venice and Milan, he spent a few days in Paris observing Edmund Landolt, an expert on diseases of the eye. Within three months of his departure for Vienna, Doyle returned to London and opened a small office and consulting room at 2 Upper Wimpole Street, or 2 Devonshire Place as it was then. According to his autobiography, he had no patients, and his efforts as an ophthalmologist were a failure[8].

Doyle and the Piltdown Man Hoax
The case against the great storyteller Conan Doyle was made in 1983 (reported in The New York Times[9]) by Dr John Hathaway Winslow, an American scientist and scholar who devoted seven years to piece together the clues. The article says Dr Winslow, who formerly taught at the University of California and Trinity College, Dublin, has nothing so convincing as fingerprints or a smoking gun as evidence that Doyle was the perpetrator of the Piltdown Man hoax. But his exhaustive array of circumstantial evidence, laid out in part in the September 1983 issue of Science 83 magazine, moves Doyle out of the mists of literary legend into the uncomfortable position of being a suspect.

An American historian of science, Richard Milner, also thought that Doyle may have been behind the 1912 hoax, which created the counterfeit hominid fossil that fooled the scientific world for over 40 years. Milner suggested Doyle had a plausible motive—namely, revenge on the scientific establishment for debunking one of his favourite psychics. However, more recent research indicates that Doyle was not involved.

The Arthur Conan Doyle Encylopedia[10] reports that Milner’s accusation was ‘refuted in 2016[11] by researchers from the Natural History Museum and the Liverpool John Moores University with genetic and morphological evidence suggesting a single forger, namely Charles Dawson. DNA evidence has shown that the tooth discovered in 1915 by Dawson came from the same jaw as the original skull and jawbone (1912), suggesting he had planted them both. The chances of Dawson stumbling across two hoax sites, two miles apart, are beyond credulity.’

Doyle and his Knighthood
In 1900, Doyle served in the Boer War as a volunteer doctor in the Langman Field Hospital at Bloemfontein between March and June of that year. After returning home, he wrote a lengthy book, The Great Boer War, which sought to justify the British cause and emphasise the need for army reform and modernisation. The book was hailed in the press for its accuracy and fairness. In 1902, Doyle received a knighthood for a pamphlet, The War in South Africa: Its Causes and Conduct, in which he defended England’s position in the Boer War in South Africa and for his service to the nation. He was reluctant to accept the title, but his mother talked him into it. There is also a theory that King Edward VII, a keen reader of Sherlock Holmes stories, knighted him to encourage him to write more stories about the ‘master’ detective’.[12]

Doyle and Underdogs
Doyle campaigned successfully against miscarriages of justice and was always a partisan of the underdog. He conducted a long campaign to defend the half-British and half-Indian solicitor from Birmingham – George Edaljii – who had been accused of mutilating animals. Julian Barnes’ novel, Arthur and George (2005)[13], recounts this episode in his life. Conan Doyle also campaigned for the release of Oscar Slater, a German Jew born in Upper Silesia, who was accused of murdering an old woman in Glasgow. Doyle exposed inconsistencies in the police investigation, and Slater was finally freed.


  • ’‘I never make exceptions.  An exception disproves the rule. ’‘I listen to their story, they listen to my comments, and then I pocket my fee.’‘
  • ’‘I ought to know by this time that when a fact appears to be opposed to a long train of deductions, it invariably proves to be capable of bearing some other interpretation.”
  • ’‘There is nothing new under the sun. It has all been done before.”
  • ’‘You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles.”
  • “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”
  • “I am the last and highest court of appeal in detection.”
  • “I cannot live without brain-work. What else is there to live for?’‘
  • “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.”
  • “I never guess. It is a shocking habit, destructive to the logical faculty.”
  • “It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts.”
  • “Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself; but talent instantly recognises genius.”
  • “My name is Sherlock Holmes. It is my business to know what other people don’t know.”
  • “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”
  • “There is nothing like first-hand evidence.”
  • “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”
  • “What one man can invent, another can discover.”
  • “It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.”
  • “Elementary, my dear Watson.”

Sherlock Holmes outside Baker Street underground station
Picture Credit: “Sherlock Holmes outside Baker Street underground station” by gregwake is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes is a fictional detective of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes first appeared in publication in 1887. Undoubtedly brilliant and hugely intelligent, the London-based detective Holmes is famous for his prowess at using logic and astute observation to solve cases. He is perhaps the most famous fictional detective and indeed one of the best known and most universally recognisable literary characters of all time.

The official site of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Literary Estate describes Holmes in this way[14]:

“Holmes has essentially an obsessive personality. He works compulsively on all his cases and his deductive powers are phenomenal. He can get engulfed in periods of depression between cases and is known to take cocaine when he cannot stand the lack of activity. He has an in-depth knowledge of music and plays on a Stradivarius that he bought for a song in Tottenham. He is also known to run chemistry experiments in his spare time to the dismay of both Dr Watson and his landlady Mrs Hudson.

“Holmes is described as being 60, indicating that he was born in 1854. He lived in London at 221B Baker Street and shared rooms with Dr Watson until the latter’s marriage in 1887 and then again after his wife’s death. We do not know anything of Holmes’ parents. He does mention, however, that his ancestors were “country squires”. He claims that his grandfather was the artist Horace Vernet and we know that he has a brother Mycroft, a civil servant, who is seven years older than he is. Holmes worked as a detective for 23 years and retired in the Sussex Downs shortly before 1904. The details of his death are unknown.”

The Baker Street Wiki (a FANDOM TV Community)[15] adds to our understanding of who Holmes is and what he is like:

“At the age of 20, Holmes was to find his life’s calling. For it was in that year that he began his illustrious career as the world’s first consulting detective, taking his first case… which his future friend and companion Dr John Watson would come to title, in his chronicles of Holmes’ endeavours, “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott”. His study of science at university having informed his already keen mind and powers of observation, Holmes employed a process of deductive reasoning in his work with great success.

“In early 1881, he is presented as an independent student of chemistry with a variety of very curious side-interests, almost all of which turn out to be single-mindedly bent towards making him superior at solving crimes. In another early story, “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott”, more background on what caused Holmes to become a detective is presented: a college friend’s father complimented him very highly on his deductive skills.

“In “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter”, Holmes states that his grandmother was the sister of the French painter “Vernet” (presumably Horace Vernet).”

In A Study in Scarlet, Dr Watson evaluates Sherlock Holmes’ skills[16], perhaps somewhat tongue in cheek:

  • Knowledge of Literature – Nil.
  • Knowledge of Astronomy – Nil.
  • Knowledge of Politics – Feeble.
  • Knowledge of Botany – Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium, and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening.
  • Knowledge of Geology – Practical but limited. Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After walks, he has shown me splashes upon his trousers and told me by their colour and consistence in what part of London he had received them.
  • Knowledge of Chemistry – Profound.
  • Knowledge of Anatomy – Accurate but unsystematic.
  • Knowledge of Sensationalism – Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.
  • Plays the violin well.
  • Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.
  • Has a good practical knowledge of British law.

Photo of Granada TV Sherlock Holmes 1984 series
Picture Credit: “Photo of Granada TV Sherlock Holmes 1984 series” by Can Pac Swire is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 [Watson is on the left of Holmes]

Dr John H. Watson
Arthur Conan Doyle created the character of Dr Watson. Along with Sherlock Holmes, Dr Watson first appeared in the novel A Study in Scarlet (1887). The fictional Watson was born in 1852. In 1878, at age 26, he received his medical degree from Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of London. Watson was an athlete in his younger days: The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire (1924) mentioned he had played Rugby for Blackheath.

Watson trained at Netley (near Southampton) as an assistant surgeon in the British Army. He saw service in India with the 5th Northumberland Fusiliers before being attached to the 66th (Berkshire) Regiment of Foot. He was wounded in July 1880 by a bullet to his shoulder at the Battle of Maiwand from a jezail (Afghan long rifle), and his health took a turn for the worse. He suffered typhoid fever/dysentery. Following his recovery, he was sent back to England on the troopship HMS Orontes to live on a small army pension of 11 shillings and 6 pence.

Whilst he lacked Holmes’ extraordinary insight, Watson was a modest and intelligent man, discreet in character and highly honourable. He was also considered to be an excellent doctor and surgeon, especially by Holmes. He serves as a perfect foil for Holmes: being the archetypal late Victorian/Edwardian gentleman against the brilliant, emotionally detached analytical machine.

Serendipitously, through the introduction of a friend, Watson and Holmes meet in London and decide to share rooms at 221B Baker Street. Watson establishes a medical practice at those premises and accompanies Holmes on his crime-fighting cases, which he later records and publishes. Watson became Holmes’ best friend, assistant and flatmate. He is a patient and sensitive observer, but his detecting capabilities are no match for the lightning-fast deductive skills of Sherlock Holmes.

221B Baker Street
221B Baker Street, London NW1 6XE is the fictional address where Sherlock Holmes ran his sleuthing practice. It is now the home of The Sherlock Holmes Museum, a privately-run museum dedicated to the famous fictional detective. It opened in 1990 and bears the number 221B by permission of the City of Westminster, although it lies between numbers 237 and 241, near the north end of Baker Street in central London, close to Regent’s Park. The building is a Georgian townhouse that was built in 1815. The museum covers the period from 1881 to 1904 when the stories describe Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson living and working there as tenants of a Mrs Hudson. The house is listed as Grade 2 because of its special architectural and historical features. The museum features items from several different adaptations of Sherlock Holmes and recreations of scenes from the 1984 Granada Television series Sherlock Holmes.[17]

Sourced and Excerpted from and Further Reading

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Cloke’s Corner
The statue was erected in 2001 and sculpted by David Cornell. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is Crowborough’s most famous resident, having lived in the town from 1907 until he died in 1930. He faces towards Rotherfield as this was his favourite view.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Cloke's Corner
© Copyright Simon Carey and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
Attribution: “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Cloke’s Corner” by Simon Carey is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

  1. Gelsemium is an Asian and North American genus of flowering plants belonging to the group Gelsemiaceae. The genus contains three species of shrubs, all of which are poisonous. Gelsemium elegans (allspice jasmine) from Indomalesia contains powerful alkaloids that have been used in murder and suicide. The sweetly scented Gelsemium sempervirens (Carolina, or yellow, jessamine) is a highly poisonous vine in the southern United States that is also cultivated and has been used medicinally for migraines. Source:,
  2. Tabes Dorsalis is a slow degeneration of the nerve cells and nerve fibres that carry sensory information to the brain. The degenerating nerves are in the dorsal columns of the spinal cord (the portion closest to the back of the body) and carry information that help maintain a person’s sense of position.
  3. Source: The Arthur Conan Doyle Enclopedia, at
  4. Source:
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  6. Source:
  7. See:
  8. Source: Higham, Charles (1976). The Adventures of Conan Doyle. New York: W.W. Norton. pp. 86–87.
  9. See:
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  12. Sourced from:
  13. See:
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  16. At:
  17. Source:

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