He lived in a little town called, Puddleby-on-the-Marsh. All the folks, young and old, knew him well by sight. And whenever he walked down the street in his high hat everyone would say, “There goes the Doctor!—He’s a clever man.” And the dogs and the children would all run up and follow behind him; and even the crows that lived in the church-tower would caw and nod their heads.
The house he lived in, on the edge of the town, was quite small; but his garden was very large and had a wide lawn and stone seats and weeping-willows hanging over. His sister, Sarah Dolittle, was housekeeper for him; but the Doctor looked after the garden himself.
He was very fond of animals and kept many kinds of pets. Besides the gold-fish in the pond at the bottom of his garden, he had rabbits in the pantry, white mice in his piano, a squirrel in the linen closet and a hedgehog in the cellar. He had a cow with a calf too, and an old lame horse—twenty-five years of age—and chickens, and pigeons, and two lambs, and many other animals. But his favorite pets were Dab-Dab the duck, Jip the dog, Gub-Gub the baby pig, Polynesia the parrot, and the owl Too-Too.
His sister used to grumble about all these animals and said they made the house untidy. And one day when an old lady with rheumatism came to see the Doctor, she sat on the hedgehog who was sleeping on the sofa and never came
to see him any more, but drove every Saturday all the way to Oxenthorpe, another town ten miles off, to see a different doctor.
Then his sister, Sarah Dolittle, came to him and said,
“John, how can you expect sick people to come and see you when you keep all these animals in the house? It’s a fine doctor would have his parlor full of hedgehogs and mice! That’s the fourth personage these animals have driven away. Squire Jenkins and the Parson say they wouldn’t come near your house again—no matter how sick they are. We are getting poorer every day. If you go on like this, none of the best people will have you for a doctor.”
“But I like the animals better than the ‘best people’,” said the Doctor.
Now, that is the beginning of a book, The Story of Doctor Dolittle, written and illustrated by Hugh Lofting. He was born in the U.K., went to school at M.I.T., worked as a civil engineer, and enlisted in the British Army in 1914. In 1918 he caught shrapnel from a hand grenade in his thigh and shortly after left active service and moved his family to Connecticut. The classic Doctor Dolittle books started as a series of enchanting fanciful letters home to his children during WW1. After all, what father would write to his kids of the horrors of war?
I grew up reading (and re-reading!) the books. And this one—
a copy given from my grandparents to my father in 1924, on his first birthday—would become a three part basis (Story of Doctor Dolittle, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, and Doctor Dolittle’s Circus) for the movie made in 1967.
In 2019 we can expect an Untitled Doctor Dolittle film from Universal, starring Robert Downey Jr. (you know who he is, but did you know he has kind of a petting zoo on his property for his kids?) and helmed by Stephen Gaghan (an accomplished writer, turned director). The books were set when Victoria was queen of England, and I hear the film will be a period piece. I suspect I will love it, almost as much as I do the books.