'Dolittle': Retracing the legacy of John Hunter, the pioneering surgeon who inspired the whimsical doctor

Hunter is also believed to be an inspiration behind Robert Louis Stevenson's horror classic 'The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde'


                            'Dolittle': Retracing the legacy of John Hunter, the pioneering surgeon who inspired the whimsical doctor
John Hunter. Painted by John Jackson in 1813 (Wikimedia Commons)

The character of Doctor Dolittle, a medical man who uses his ability to speak to animals (Dod Whisperer) to become an eccentric veterinarian, was conceived by Hugh Lofting in a series of stories set in Victorian England. Since then, the character has become a household name, with a new film adaptation on the way starring Robert Downey Jr. as the titular physician. 

What most people don't know is that the real-life Scottish surgeon John Hunter (1728-1793), who was one of the most distinguished (if controversial) scientists of his age, was a major inspiration for Lofting when he created Doctor Dolittle. Ironically, Hunter is also believed to have been an inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's horror classic 'The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde'.

Hunter was reportedly a lover of animals and a naturalist who collected specimens from around the world, creating a vast collection of samples that have proven instrumental in the study of anatomy.  Interestingly enough, Hunter was also a teacher to Edward Jenner, the English physician who is best known for the work he did towards creating a vaccine for smallpox. 

In his time (and even today) Hunter was a divisive figure. On the one hand, he was one of the most prominent surgeons of his time and is one of many figures who have been popularly regarded as the fathers of modern surgery. On the other hand, some believe that he used less than savory methods to further his research, including grave robbery, human experimentation, and a number of other charges. 

The truth about these charges may never come to light, considering the decades that have passed since his time. What we do know for sure is that without Hunter, modern medicine might have turned out very differently and we may never have been gifted with the delightful Doctor Dolittle. That's quite a legacy for one man to leave behind.

'Dolittle' starring Robert Downey Jr. will arrive in theaters on January 17.

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