Men We Wish We Were: Arthur Conan Doyle

Every month Primer is recognizing a different individual for their accomplishments, cultural significance, and general awesomeness. This month: Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

“I can drill a company – I do so every evening. I have seen something of campaigning, having served as a surgeon in South Africa. I am fifty-five but very strong and hardy, and can make my voice audible at great distances, which is useful at drill.”

Such was the letter penned by a middle-aged Scottish doctor to the War Office at the onset of WWI. In spite of his age and against the repeated advice of his family, the good doctor insisted that he be allowed to enlist in the service of his country. “I think I may say,” the good doctor argued, “that my name is well known to younger men of this country and that if I were to take a commission at my age, it would set an example which might be of help.”

That name known to the younger men of the country was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Formative Years:

Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born to a poor Edinburgh family in 1859. While Doyle’s mother was a loving parent who instilled in her son a deep sense of curiosity and wonder, his father was a severe alcoholic and chronically absent from his son’s life. Picked on by his classmates and subjected to misery and poverty at home, it was only through the generous support of more fortunate relatives that Arthur escaped his meager conditions to attend medical school. The selfless kindness he was shown would have a profound impact on Arthur, and serve as a driving force throughout his life.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Arthur took a position as a ship’s doctor aboard an arctic-bound vessel, serving his crewmates with compassion and empathy. In spite of his charm and skill as a physician, Arthur nevertheless struggled to establish himself upon his return to England. Newly married and increasingly desperate, Arthur began writing short stories to supplement his income. In 1887, at the age of 28, he had his first hit: A Study in Scarlet, introducing two of the most iconic figures in literature, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson.

From then on, Doyle’s fame as a writer grew exponentially, with one commission following another. The adventures of Sherlock Holmes became so popular that Doyle worried he’d never be able to write anything else. In an attempt to discourage further stories, Doyle continually raised the price of his services. The editors, however, would not be dissuaded, and Doyle only succeeded in making himself fantastically rich. Imagining Holmes as Doyle’s only legacy would, however, be a mistake.

There would have been nothing easier in the world for Doyle than to bask in his own triumph. His detective stories had earned him fame and his equally amazing tales of adventure had cemented his legacy as one of the great authors of his age. He had a large home, a loving wife, devoted children, and even a knighthood recognizing his accomplishments. Arthur could have lived out the rest of his days in ease and comfort and no one would have thought the less of him for it.

Nothing could be further from what happened.

In spite of his wild success, Arthur remained at his core a simple, decent, compassionate man of unshakeable principles. Nearly ninety years later Doyle’s lessons in conviction can continue to inspire us.

Why We Want To Be Him

Everyone Deserves Justice

In spite of his success, Doyle never forgot his humble beginnings, or the role that the compassion of others had in shaping his life. Doyle would, for all of his life, take a stand for those nobody else would.

A vintage photo of George Edalji wearing a suit and tie

George Edalji

In 1906, Doyle became involved in a case involving a young lawyer named George Edalji. Edalji had been convicted of animal mutilation in a bizarre case largely suspected to have its roots in racial prejudice (Edalji was half Indian) and local vendettas, rather than any actual evidence. The travesty that was his trail attracted attention from across the country, including that of Arthur, who swiftly discovered (using some of Holmes’ own techniques) that Edalji could not have been the actual culprit. As a result, Edalji’s conviction was overturned.

Doyle would likewise help overturn the wrongful conviction of petty criminal Oscar Slater – sentenced to death for the robbery and murder of an elderly woman (in spite of having an alibi). Doyle’s tireless and incisive investigation not only saved Slater’s life but exposed severe police misconduct at the same time. Arthur’s persevering pursuit of justice helped catalyze reforms and improvements of the legal system, leading directly the establishment of appeal courts, and the overturning of hundreds (if not thousands) of wrongful convictions.

Everyone Can Do Something

Like so many great men, Doyle was of the belief that service was not a burden but an honor, and the First World War had hardly begun before Arthur attempted to enlist in the service. Anticipating that the armed forces might have some reservations about letting a fifty-five year old enlist, Doyle took it upon himself to form, train, and manage a civilian militia, creating a personal army of nearly two hundred recruits and fielding over a thousand more applications. Rather than selecting the best candidates, Doyle consciously chose men outside of those who would be expected to enlist, ensuring everyone had a chance to contribute. While the understandably panicked British government quickly disbanded Doyle’s homemade army, Arthur’s zealous (if slightly gung-ho) militia became the basis for national volunteer organizations. Even though he was offered command of the restructured volunteer regiment, Doyle refused – choosing instead to enter as a private to prove that no one was above service.

Although Doyle would not be permitted to enlist in the army, his experience aboard ships (and a stint in South Africa) would lead him to save thousands of lives. Doyle would help invent an early forerunner of the modern lifejacket, and lobby the government into making them standard issue for sailors. While Arthur’s insistence that infantrymen be given body armor met with sneers from British commanders (who viewed such things as cowardly), Doyle nevertheless helped convince the government to adopt steel helmets for soldiers. While few remember Doyle’s involvement, such innovations would go on to save thousands of during his lifetime, and scores more in the decades to follow. As Arthur himself saw it –

Arthur conan doyle drawingEvery Bit Counts

For all his brilliance as a writer and a justice advocate, the simple truth is that you can’t win them all, and Doyle was to become painfully aware of this fact at the conviction of his longtime friend, Roger Casement. A fellow justice advocate, Casement and Doyle had worked alongside in their campaign against the horrific abuses of the Congolese by their Belgian occupiers, though the two men were to fall out over WWI (Casement being a pacifist and Doyle, as was pretty evident, was not).  In spite of this, Arthur would nevertheless rush to the defense of his friend after Casement was arrested for treason for his involvement in the Irish struggle for independence and summarily sentenced to death. Doyle passionately argued for clemency on behalf of his colleague, but for all his eloquence and efforts, Casement was nevertheless hanged in 1916.

In the face of such a devastating defeat, it would be easy to lose heart, and a lesser man might have called it quits. But Doyle, against all odds, never lost his zeal for the cause, adamantly arguing that every step towards a better world, no matter how small, was still a step worth taking. To quote the man himself,

“I should dearly love that the world should be ever so little better for my presence. Even on this small stage we have our two sides, and something might be done by throwing all one's weight on the scale of breadth, tolerance, charity, temperance, peace, and kindliness to man and beast. We can't all strike very big blows, and even the little ones count for something.”

Arthur Conan Doyle presents us with a model of the kind of ordinary man capable of performing extraordinary things- not with great feats or swashbuckling heroics but with a kind of quiet decency and unyielding commitment to service we can all aspire to. Doyle was not some great warrior, he was not an esteemed politician, or some undefeated strategist. Arthur was not even a perfect man, often given to bouts of jingoism and superstition. And for all of that – perhaps because all of that – an even more impressive figure. To this day, Arthur shows us the immense power of empathy, perseverance, decency, and even simple kindness. We know his methods – we must apply them.

Required Reading:

The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle: A BiographyBy Russell Miller

The Doctor and the Detective: A Biography of Sir Arthur Conan DoyleBy Martin Booth

Arthur and GeorgeBy Julian Barnes

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Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown grew up in the deserts of Syria and now lives in the deserts of Nevada. Since his arrival in the New World, his award-winning work has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Modern Haiku, The Ocotillo Review, 3rd Wednesday Magazine, and elsewhere. His writing has appeared in Primer for the past seven years.