In 1916 a man named Hugh Lofting was at the Western Front, enduring all its horrors. His children at home asked for illustrated letters and as he felt war was not a suitable topic for their young minds, he instead sent pictorial letters about a vet who could talk to animals and went on fabulous adventures. The children loved them, and their mother persuaded Lofting to turn the letters into book form. The Story of Doctor Dolittle was published a century ago, in 1922, and was an instant hit. John Dolittle MD, of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh (isn’t that a gorgeous name!) is a doctor who fills his home with animals, to the fury of his sister Sarah. There are rabbits in the pantry, a squirrel in the linen closet, a hedgehog on the sofa, and even a crocodile takes up residence. Patients are too frightened to visit and the doctor turns to animal patients instead. His visit to Africa introduces him to the Pushmi-Pullyu.
Lofting wrote several books in the series – The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle, Doctor Dolittle’s Garden, Doctor Dolittle’s Post Office, Doctor Dolittle’s Circus, Doctor Dolittle’s Zoo and Doctor Dolittle’s Caravan. His experience in the war left Lofting feeling that animals had more sense than humans. His biographer Edward Blishen has stated: “No one else has set out, quite as he did, to create a hero, and a notion of heroism, that is radical, pacifist and profoundly opposed to common ideas of conventional respectability.”
Hugh Lofting remained a British citizen all his life although he spent much of it in the USA. He wearied of the doctor and wanted to retire him, but readers demanded more. The musical film version that came out in 1967, with Rex Harrison as Doctor Dolittle, sparked new interest in the books – did you see that film as a child? Did you read the books and enjoy them?