The Doctor Dolittle Stories

They began with injured horses in World War I

Jerry Griswold

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Appearing this January, “Dolittle” (starring Robert Downey Jr.) presents one more reincarnation of the remarkable veterinarian who can understand and converse with animals. Previously, Eddie Murphy appeared in that role in “Dr. Dolittle” (1998), a film than spawned four sequels. And some thirty years before that, Rex Harrison played the eccentric physician in a film musical that featured the award-winning song “Talk to the Animals.” But the good doctor first made his debut in 1920 in what became a series of beloved children’s books by Hugh Lofting. Here’s how that happened.

During World War I, Lofting was an English soldier fighting in the trenches of France and the bloody fields of Flanders. At the request of his young children, he sent home letters with illustrated stories. Then, at some point, he noticed the considerable role horses were playing in the war: as Lofting noted, these creatures took their chances alongside soldiers but were treated far differently if they were wounded. While soldiers could count on the resources of field hospitals and surgeons, seriously injured horses were put down with a bullet.

This didn’t strike Lofting as fair: “If we made the animals take the same chances as we did ourselves, why did we not give them similar attention when wounded?” Obviously, this would require a horse hospital and a surgeon with a knowledge of horse language.

Here was an idea for a story he could now send home in the regular letters from the front to his children: “A story about an eccentric country physician with a bent for natural history and a great love of pets, who finally decided to give up his human practice for the more difficult, more sincere and, for him, more attractive therapy of the animal kingdom. He is challenged by the work for obviously it requires a much cleverer brain to become a go animal doctor (who must first acquire all animal languages).”

And so was born, exactly a century ago, “The Story of Doctor Dolittle.”

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Excerpted from my Introduction to Hugh Lofting’s “The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle” (New York: New American Library, 2000).

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Jerry Griswold

Writer/critic/professor/journalist: children’s literature, culture, film, travel. Seven books, 100's of essays in NY&LA Times.