Doctor Dolittle usually conjures up memories of Eddie Murphy being stuck in a bathroom with a bear taking a dump, or that time a squirrel was imbibed with gin so it would sit still for a scene with Rex Harrison. Now, with Robert Downey Jr.’s Dolittle featuring a fire-breathing dragon, it’s hard to picture who or what the famous character is supposed to be. But the real origins of Doctor Doolittle, and the person who created him, are stranger (and even more radical) than fiction.
The Story of Doctor Dolittle, from writer Hugh Lofting, debuted in 1920 and became the jumping-off point for a series of bestselling books that lasted decades, one of which won the Newbury Medal (1923’s The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle). The character has since been portrayed several times on film and television. The first, and perhaps most infamous, was 1967’s Doctor Dolittle. The musical—starring Harrison, Samantha Eggar, Anthony Newley, and Richard Attenborough—is known for its otherworldly production problems, bloated running time, and instances of animal cruelty, including the death of a giraffe. Since then, it’s been mostly fart jokes and wisecracking animals voiced by comedians.
However, Doctor Dolittle started out as one of the most radical characters in Victorian literature, written by an animal rights crusader and anti-war activist who once beat up three men for trying to tame wild horses and spoke out against nationalism and children’s war propaganda. That said, the author had his problems—namely a history of colonialism that informed the worst parts of his books.
Doctor Dolittle may seem like another silly children’s book character created to teach kids manners, but it was actually built out of tragedy. As told by biographer Gary Schmidt, Lofting made up the character while serving in the trenches at Flanders during World War I. His children wanted him to send them letters and illustrations from the field, but he knew the horrors of trench warfare were too much for young kids to comprehend. But there was something he could address in a way that would not only entertain, but also serve as therapy for him: the treatment of animals.
Writing for The Book of Junior Authors, Lofting described his experience watching horses suffer on the battlefield and how it motivated him:
There seemed very little of interest to write to youngsters from the Front: the news was either too horrible or too dull. And it was all censored. One thing, however, that kept forcing itself more and more on my attention was the very considerable part that animals were playing in the World War and that as time went on they, too, seemed to become Fatalists. They took their chances with the rest of us. But their fate was far different from the men’s. However seriously a soldier was wounded, his life was not despaired of; all the resources of a surgery highly developed by the war were brought to his aid. A seriously wounded horse was put out by a timely bullet.
This did not seem quite fair. If we made the animals take the same chances as we did ourselves, why did we not give them similar attention when wounded? But obviously to develop a horse-surgery as that of our Casualty Clearing Stations would necessitate a knowledge of horse language. That was the beginning of the idea: an eccentric country physician with a bent for natural history and a great love of pets, who finally decides to give up his human practice for the more difficult, more sincere and, for him, more attractive therapy of the animal kingdom.
Through a series of correspondence sent from the field, Lofting created the story of John Dolittle, the fictional English animal doctor who had eschewed humanity for animals and developed the ability to communicate with them. The letters and illustrations told his children the story of Dolittle’s adventures. After returning to America, where he spent more of his life, he compiled the stories into The Story of Doctor Dolittle. Multiple researchers, including Schmidt and László A. Magyar, share how the character of Dolittle is partially based on Scottish surgeon John Hunter, one of the proprietors of modern medicine (ironically, Hunter might also be the inspiration for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).
The interesting thing about Dr. Dolittle is how radical his views toward animal rights were, especially for the time. This is a character who, among many things, was a vocal opponent of fox hunting, which was then a prevalent English sport. In her treatise about the history of fox hunting, researcher Allyson N. May points to a moment in Doctor Dolittle’s Circus (which was sort of recreated for the 1967 film) where Dolittle repeatedly admonishes a fox hunting proponent for his backward views.
“[The fox] is not given a square deal. One fox against dozens of dogs! Besides, why should he be hunted? A fox has his rights, the same as you and I have. It’s absurd: a lot of grown men on horses, with packs of hounds roaring across country after one poor little wild animal,” Dolittle says.
This matches Lofting’s own views toward animal rights. Not only did he speak out about the treatment of horses on the battlefield and advocate for fair treatment of animals, including in relation to fox hunting, there was also that time he beat up a couple of guys who were trying to steal some wild horses. Here’s the story from Schmidt:
He had an intense love of and interest in the animal world, and felt keenly for the suffering of animals. It was this suffering that could bring out aggression from the placid Lofting; once he attacked three men, one armed with a knife, who had hobbled some wild horses. Having dispatched the three, he cut loose the horses, emptied the rifles, and, wiping the blood from his cheek, sauntered back to his camp, unruffled, to read a story to his son.
Even though Lofting’s work espoused revolutionary views toward animal rights, it was regressive when it came to issues of race. The original Doctor Dolittle books are rife with racist tropes and colonialism, both in the writing and illustrations. (The Story of Doctor Dolittle features a storyline about a black prince who begs Dolittle to turn him white.) Lofting travelled around the world working on railways during the height of British Imperialism, which some researchers believe contributed to this aspect of his work. As Schmidt put it: “He could not escape his identification with other Englishmen who heeded [Rudyard] Kipling’s advice and set forth from the cliffs of England to bring civilisation. He would despise the arrogant imperialism of the period, yet could not help but be coloured by it.”
Following some much-deserved criticism, the books were revised in 1988 to remove many (though not all) of the racist materials. This is something we’ve seen happen with other classic children’s literature, like Pippi Longstocking and The Little Witch, in addition to companies like Disney and Warner Bros. either editing out pieces of, or providing content warnings for, outdated works. Lofting’s son, Christopher Lofting, wrote an afterword that said he believed his father would have removed them himself had he known they were offensive. It still doesn’t excuse it, of course, as it points to the cultural ignorance of colonialism.
In addition to his animal rights focus, Lofting was known for his pacifist and anti-war views—something considered extremely unusual in Victorian times. After his experience in World War I, which ended in injury, Lofting became a self-described “internationalist” who wanted to avoid the isolationism and militarism that led to World War I in the first place. Themes of pacifism are present throughout the series, and some of the books (like The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle) include scenes that depict the cruelty of war.
Since he was a children’s author, much of Lofting’s focus was meant to inspire the next generation to not repeat the mistakes of the past. For example, he once wrote an essay for the Nation that sought to remove pro-war propaganda from children’s literature, something he called “tin-soldiering.” But it wasn’t just children he was trying to help. In 1942, as World War II was escalating and threatening to reach the United States, Lofting released an anti-war poem called Victory for the Slain, which described the horrors of war in impassioned detail. However, it was not well received at the time, as it came out soon after Germany bombed London and folks thought it was a commentary specifically on World War II rather than Lofting’s long-held views.
Lofting died in 1947, having survived the first World War and living to see his work fail to prevent the second. Still, his character and story (despite their problems) have endured to this day. It’s unfortunate that his legacy is defined not by his animal rights and anti-war views—as well as how he used his work to inspire kids to avoid the pitfalls of nationalism—but rather by giant dragons, ridiculous CGI animals voiced by comedians, and a musical with real-life examples of animal cruelty. Dr. Dolittle might be a veterinarian who can talk to animals, but he has some important things to say to us too. Hopefully, the right adaptation will one day come along so we can listen.