Dr Dolittle: Remembering Hugh Lofting, the man who created a classic tale in the trenches of World War 1

Dr Dolittle: Remembering Hugh Lofting, the man who created a classic tale in the trenches of World War 1
Robert Downey Jr in Dolittle (IMDb)

Most people remember Doctor Dolittle from the hilarious Eddie Murphy movies. What a lot of people don't know is that the character was actually born under less-than-cheerful circumstances.

The character of Doctor Dolittle, a medical man who uses his ability to speak to animals to become an eccentric veterinarian, was conceived by Hugh Lofting in a series of stories set in Victorian England. Though Dolittle may seem fun and witty, the character actually came from illustrated letters that Lofting wrote home to his children from the trenches of World War I.

Lofting is believed to have taken inspiration from the real-life surgeon John Hunter, who was one of the most distinguished (if controversial) scientists of his age. But the truth is, Lofting wasn't trying to create literature or pay tribute to historical figures when he set out writing those first letters. Writing for 'The Book of Junior Authors',  Lofting explained the origins of his breakout character, according to Gary D Schmidt's biography of the author.


"It was during the Great War and my children at home wanted letters from me — and they wanted them with illustrations rather than without," Lofting recalled. "There seemed very little interest to write to youngsters from the Front: the news was either too horrible or too dull."

What Lofting found most interesting about the war was the difference between how animals and humans were treated. While a wounded human soldier would receive the best available medical care, an animal in a similar situation would be put out of its misery without a second thought. 

"This did not seem quite fair," Lofting wrote. "If we made the animals take the same chances as we did ourselves, why did we not give them similar attention when wounded?"

And from that idea, Doctor Dolittle was born. 'Iron Man' star Robert Downey Jr will be taking up the role in a new movie titled 'Dolittle' that will be coming out on January 17.


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