Arts and Leisure

World War I Inspires Doctor Dolittle

Hugh Lofting, who created the children’s book character Doctor Dolittle, was an MIT trained civil engineer who spent much of his life in Connecticut.

Illustration from The Story of Doctor Dolittle

Illustration from The Story of Doctor Dolittle

Lofting was born in England in 1886, and after college began traveling the world working as an architect and illustrator. He also employed his skill as an engineer on large construction projects. He didn’t begin writing fiction until 1912, in his mid 20s. By then he had settled in America, married and started a family.

Wartime Experiences

World War I interrupted Lofting’s career as a civil engineer but inspired another as a novelist.  He enlisted in Britain’s Irish Guards from 1914 to 1918. The horrors of warfare and the mundane duties of a soldier were not appropriate topics in letters to his children, so Lofting turned to storytelling.

Hugh Lofting

The fate of the horses in World War I moved Lofting. He began spinning yarns about animals communicating and cooperating. Thus the Doctor Dolittle character emerged.

Lofting, wounded in 1919, moved with his family to Killingworth, Conn. He married three times and had three children.

Doctor Dolittle is Born

In 1920, Frederick A. Stokes published the Story of Doctor Dolittle. It told the story of John Dolittle, a veterinarian who could talk to animals. He had many adventures as he traveled the world healing a variety of creatures. Some of Lofting’s portrayals would be considered racist by today’s standards, but they were an instant hit.

Over the next 28 years, Lofting would write 10 Doctor Dolittle books, all featuring the quirky, good-hearted doctor and a cast of animals. The creatures squeaked and squawked as they communicated their needs to the doctor. His second book, The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle, won a Newbery Medal.

At the End

The character Doctor Dolittle has appeared on radio, television,  stage and in film. In 1967 Rex Harrison played the character in a movie musical, and then in 1998 Eddie Murphy took on the role.

As for Lofting, he died in 1947, having moved to California. His wartime experiences also prompted him to write one work for adults about the futility of war. Victory for the Slain, written in 1940, went unpublished in America, however. Publishers viewed it as inappropriate for the times.

This story was updated in 2021.

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