Hugh 'Dr Dolittle' Lofting died 50 years ago this year. Luke Darlington says the doctor deserves a revival
The Army horses suffered as much as the humans in the First World War, but it occurred to one soldier that they would fare much better if someone could speak their language. Civil engineer Hugh Lofting played with the idea in the illustrated letters he sent to his children, not wishing to write about the carnage around him.
The diversion grew into the 12 books about the adventures of Dr Dolittle and his animal household, through which Lofting lampooned human behaviour and adult fallibility to the delight of his readers.
The Story of Dr Dolittle appeared in 1920, dedicated "to all children, children in years and children in heart", and was instantly successful. His second book, The Voyages of Dr Dolittle, won a Newbery Medal. By the eighth, in 1929, a weary Lofting tried to leave his hero on the Moon, but popular demand led to Dr Dolittle's Return (1933). The three last titles were all published posthumously. When Lofting died in 1947 in California, aged 61, he had not yet reaped the rewards for his efforts and was supporting himself through journalism.
His doctor, who starts with humans and swiftly moves on to animals, is an unpretentious eccentric, blissfully unworldly and devoted to the welfare of others. He becomes almost penniless, driving Dab-Dab the duck, his housekeeper, frantic, but his trust in providence is always repaid.
The regular members of his bizarre household also include Polynesia his wily old parrot, through whom he first learns animal language, Jip the (sensible) dog, Too-Too the owl (an accountant), Chee-Chee the monkey and Gub-Gub the foolish pig with a perpetual interest in food. But among the many creatures he encounters, the most exceptional is the pushmi-pullyu, an animal with no tail but a head at both ends.
The books seem to be out of favour: the early titles featuring Bumpo the African prince are certainly considered offensive by the politically correct lobby. However, it is worth noting that Bumpo is one of the few humans the doctor respects - others being Matthew Mugg, the Cats'-Meat Man, and young Tommy Stubbins, the doctor's biographer who, as narrator of the various tales, maintains continuity and helps children identify with the action, set in the early 19th century (the doctor meets Paganini).
The books have much to offer today's readers. The doctor is an attractive character - a mixture of boyish enthusiasm and father-figure affability. Contrary to his name, he performs great deeds. He combines physical strength with firm principles and high ideals, at home in the classless society of the animals.
His exploits are unlikely, but never incredible; difficulties are recognised, but irrelevancies are ignored in Lofting's urge for a fast pace of storytelling.
It has been suggested that Lofting created in Dolittle the tireless social reformer he would have liked to become. Helped by his animals, the doctor vanquishes all his opponents, not least those who represent cruelty, greed, hypocrisy and self-importance. In Matthew Mugg's concluding words "There 'e is, workin' away. Ain't it like 'im? - Tryin' to set the world to rights?" Lofting should also be applauded for being unafraid of the occasional use of poetry and for his illustrations. Readers may be disappointed by their simplicity but their charm is immense, apart from some scenes illustrating the African episodes.
It would be a shame if concerns about a few titles should cut new readers off from the world of Dolittle. Children love talking to their pets and these adventures are a clever extension of the idea - a journey into fantasy.
Eight to nine-year-olds who are confident readers can progress quickly through the books, knowing that there are more to follow - although, unfortunately, only The Story of Dr Dolittle is now in print (Red Fox Pounds 3.99). They should not miss out on Lofting's subtle humour and his flair for situation comedy (see Dolittle in his jungle post office, dispensing medicine on the back of postage stamps - to stamp out an epidemic, of course).
Luke Darlington is headteacher of St Mary's Church of England primary school, Yate, Bristol