How Dr Dolittle originated on the Western Front: Cartoon animal doodles drawn by a soldier during the First World War led to one of the world’s most famous children’s stories
- Artist Hugh Lofting drew the pictures while in the trenches in Flanders
- He is known worldwide today as Dr Dolittle, a physician who can talk to animals
- Son Christopher, 83, said the pictures gave his father ‘escapism’ from the war
They seem to be little more than scribbles in a letter home from the trenches, an attempt to cheer up two children who desperately missed their father in the First World War.
Yet the charming cartoon animals – shown here for the first time dancing ‘ring-a-ring-o’-roses’ and wearing top hats – inspired one soldier to create one of the most memorable characters in fiction.
The artist was Hugh Lofting, who was serving in the trenches of Flanders. Today he is known worldwide as the writer of the Dr Dolittle stories, featuring a physician who can talk to the animals. First made into a film starring Rex Harrison in 1967, and then with Eddie Murphy in 1998, it returns to the big screen next month with Robert Downey Jr.
Charming: Hugh Lofting sent pictures from the Front of animals to his children
Hugh Lofting (pictured) drew the drawings in Flanders in order to escape from the war, his son told the Mail on Sunday
But behind the heartwarming stories lay personal suffering. Not only was Dr Dolittle dreamt up amid the horrors of the Western Front, but Lofting would later be plagued by alcohol problems.
His son Christopher, 83, told The Mail on Sunday: ‘My father took pleasure in writing these letters from the Front because they gave him a certain amount of escapism from the horrors of war.’
They were addressed to Christopher’s older siblings, Colin and Elizabeth, who were five and four at the time. Apparently Lofting was inspired to name his central character Dolittle after Colin, who he often teased for being lazy. Lofting was encouraged by his first wife to turn his ideas into children’s fiction. The first book, The Story of Dr Dolittle, was published 100 years ago.
Christopher believes his father spent much of his life in ‘conflict with himself’. Despite living most of his time in America, Lofting remained proudly British and never took American citizenship.
The drawings led to the world famous Dr Dolittle stories, about a physician who can talk to animals. Pictured above is an animal wearing a hat
It was his peaceful nature, Christopher believes, that is key to understanding Dr Dolittle. ‘He’s the improbable hero and ultimately the animals and doctor survive by working together. His message was one of pacifism and equality.’
It was the plight of animals on the Western Front that gave Lofting the idea of making them the central characters in his letters home. Christopher remembers a father who could not abide cruelty to animals and would unleash his ‘Irish temper’ on anyone who mistreated them.