Turning Pages: The many delights of Dr Dolittle
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Turning Pages: The many delights of Dr Dolittle

It was 1917, and an English soldier in the trenches on the Western Front in France was trying to write home to his wife and young children. But what could he write about?

The reality around him was too horrible. Men were shot, burned, blown up or gassed every day. Even worse, he thought, were the deaths of horses, mules and dogs, because they were innocent and had no choice, and he could not climb out to help injured animals without getting shot himself.

Hugh Lofting turned his letters from the trenches into Dr Dolittle.

Hugh Lofting turned his letters from the trenches into Dr Dolittle. Credit:Getty

So Hugh Lofting invented a better, kinder world for his family: a world where animals were respected and understood. He dreamed up an eccentric little vet in a tall hat, Dr Dolittle, who lived in the 19th century in an English village called Puddleby-in-the-Marsh and could talk to the animals. The doctor’s adventures filled his letters, and he illustrated them with pen and ink drawings.

Lofting was eventually wounded and invalided out of the war. After convalescing in England, he returned to his family in New York. His wife Flora persuaded him to turn his letters and drawings into a book, which was published in 1920 under the splendid title of The Story of Doctor Dolittle: Being the History of His Peculiar Life at Home and Astonishing Adventures in Foreign Parts. Never Before Published.

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This year we’re celebrating the 100th birthday of Dr Dolittle with special paperback editions of The Story of Doctor Dolittle and one of its many sequels, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, which won the prestigious American award for children’s books, the Newbery Medal.

Robert Downey jnr is the latest cinematic iteration of Hugh Lofting's enduring character, Dr Dolittle. That's him on the right.

Robert Downey jnr is the latest cinematic iteration of Hugh Lofting's enduring character, Dr Dolittle. That's him on the right.Credit:Universal PIctures

The good doctor was an instant hit with children and has continued to delight generations. I read many of the books as a child and I have affectionate memories of the animals – in particular Polynesia the parrot and the extraordinary Pushmi-Pullu, a large cow-like animal with a head at both ends. How, I wondered, could it poop?

The weirdest book I read was Doctor Dolittle in the Moon, which was almost too creepy for me. Lofting wrote it in 1928 to get rid of his hero, but popular demand forced him to create another book, Doctor Dolittle’s Return, in 1933. The last book, Doctor Dolittle and the Secret Lake, was published posthumously in 1948.

Penguin enlisted Lofting’s son Christopher, the child of Lofting’s third marriage, to update the books for modern audiences. In an interview, he said his father always maintained he was nothing like Dr Dolittle. But once he sent his wife on a 100-mile drive to find an egg for their pet canary. When the egg hatched, out came a thrush, which soon grew to twice the canary’s size. Still, the birds got along. ‘‘Only my father could have done something like that,’’ Christopher said. ‘‘He had an animal green thumb.’’

The books have inspired five films with three very different Doctors: the singing Rex Harrison, Eddie Murphy, and this year, Robert Downey jnr, Kyla Pratt played Maya, daughter to Murphy’s Dolittle, and later she was the lead character in another Dolittle film. But to my mind, none of these performances are much like the original Dolittle, a quiet, unassuming fellow of great bravery and kindness, and a nifty flute player.

After his traumatic World War I experiences, Lofting was a lifelong pacifist. When World War II began, he composed a long and passionate poem, Victory for the Slain, about the futility and horror of war. But like A. A. Milne, another war-damaged Englishman determined to write the definitive anti-war treatise, he’s remembered for his stories for children. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh and Lofting’s Dr Dolittle are the creations who have survived and thrived.

Janesullivan.sullivan9@gmail.com

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