Arts and Leisure

World War I Inspires Doctor Dolittle

Hugh Lofting, the man 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 employing his skills as an architect, illustrator and 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

Lofting’s career was interrupted by World War I, when he was called on to serve in Britain’s Irish Guards. Lofting’s military service from 1914 to 1918 was the inspiration for Doctor Dolittle, in a round about way. 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.

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

Doctor Dolittle is Born

In 1920, the Story of Doctor Dolittle was published. It told the story of John Dolittle, a veterinarian who could talk to animals, and his adventures as he traveled the world healing a wide variety of creatures. Some of Lofting’s portrayals would be considered racist by today’s standards. The books 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 and squeaking and squawking as they communicated their needs to the doctor.

At the End

The character Doctor Dolittle has been adapted for radio, plays, television and films. The character’s most well-known adaptations were in 1967 when Rex Harrison played the character in a musical and in 1998 when Eddie Murphy took on the role.

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 It went unpublished in America, however, because it was viewed by publishers as inappropriate for the times.

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