Hugh John Lofting was born in Maidenhead, Berkshire, England, on January 14, 1886. He was one of six children of an English father, John Brien Lofting, and an Irish mother, Elizabeth Agnes (Gannon) Lofting.
With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, one can identify a few facts about Hugh Lofting's childhood which seem to "foreshadow" his later career. For instance, the standard biographical sketches say that, as a boy, the future children's author liked to tell stories to his siblings. And apparently Doctor Dolittle's creator-to-be evinced an early interest in nature, even bringing some of it indoors (as little boys are wont to do) and maintaining a sort of personal "natural history museum and zoo"...that is, until his mother found it in her linen closet! And animals in particular must have held some attraction for young Hugh, as we are told that one of his favorite outings was to go to London with his mother to look at the puppies in a certain pet shop.
But however clear it may seem that Hugh Lofting was "destined" for his eventual career, it may also be said that he arrived at it via the long route. For, at the end of his ten years (1894-1904) at Mount St. Mary's, the Jesuit boarding school in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, where he received a classical education, the young man had made up his mind to become a civil engineer and see the world.
The desired world travel actually commenced before the career did, as Lofting went straight to America to begin studies for his engineering degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After a year (1904-05) at MIT, it was back to England, to finish up (1906-07) at the London Polytechnic. Then there followed a brief stint as an architect, after which the odyssey began in earnest. The newly minted civil engineer did some prospecting and surveying in Canada in 1908-09, and went on between 1910 and 1912 to work first for the Lagos Railway in West Africa and then for the Railway of Havana in Cuba. But the attractions of the life faded sufficiently that by 1912 Hugh Lofting was ready to do something else.
That year, he returned to America, married Flora Small, and settled in New York City to begin a writing career. HL's entry in the 1931 edition of Living Authors says that the ex-engineer's first story was about "culverts and a bridge." :-) He soon hit his stride, however, and was producing short pieces which were published in magazines. Of course, these stories were different from the books on which his fame would ultimately rest. For one thing, they were not written for children. Nor did they include any drawings by their author: Lofting's experience as an illustrator was confined, at this point, to the technical drawing he had done as an architect and civil engineer.
A new career was not the only thing begun during these first few years of the Loftings' marriage: they also started a family. Elizabeth Mary was born in 1913; Colin MacMahon followed in 1915. Meanwhile, Europe went to war, and the Lofting family would not be unaffected.
The "Great War" broke out 1914, and in 1915 Hugh Lofting, still a British subject, worked for the British Ministry of Information while remaining in New York. A year later, though, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Irish Guards, and he saw action in Flanders and France in 1917-18. To say that "the experience affected him profoundly" seems trite and unnecessary; how could a person of any sensitivity not react deeply to the horrors of war? And yet out of what was surely a terrible experience came something altogether lovely: the charming story, told in simply illustrated letters home to Elizabeth and Colin, of an endearingly sensible little man who values and cares for all creatures as ends in themselves, and who is unsympathetic only to the falseness and hypocrisy which characterizes much of human society.
It is thought that the idea for The Story of Doctor Dolittle came to Hugh Lofting after he saw the destruction of regimental horses wounded in battle. In her History of the Newbery and Caldecott Medals, Irene Smith notes that "[a]t the 1923 conference, after Hugh Lofting had accepted the second Newbery Medal [for his second Dr. Dolittle book], Mr. R.R. Bowker asked him how Doctor Dolittle had originated. Lofting said that at the front he had been so impressed by the behavior of horses and mules under fire that he invented the little doctor to do for them what was not and could not be done in real life...."
In 1918, Hugh Lofting was badly wounded (struck in the thigh by a piece of shrapnel from a hand grenade); he would be invalided out of the army before the War's end. His family eventually joined him in England, and by 1919 they were all ready to return home to New York. The precious Doctor Dolittle letters had, of course, been saved, and at some stage Lofting began to entertain his wife's suggestion of turning them into a book. And then, a bit of serendipity:
British poet and novelist Cecil Roberts was on the same ship as the Loftings during their return trip to America. "Crossing the Atlantic," Roberts later wrote, "I had a neighbor in my deck chair. Every evening about six he said he had to disappear to read a bedtime story to Doctor Dolittle. I enquired who Doctor Dolittle might be and he said it was his little son. The next day a snubnosed boy appeared on deck with his mother and thus I made the acquaintance of the original Doctor Dolittle. Later Hugh Lofting at my request showed me some of his manuscript and he wondered if it would make a book. I was at once struck by the quality of the stories and, enthusiastic about their publication, recommended him to my publisher, Mr. Stokes. I never saw Hugh Lofting again, but when his first Dolittle book came out, he sent me a copy with a charming inscription."
And so in 1920, a series of letters written to ease the strain of war became The Story of Doctor Dolittle: Being the History of His Peculiar Life at Home and Astonishing Adventures in Foreign Parts. Never Before Published ... and an instant children's classic. Readers in both America and England wanted further adventures, and some youngsters even wrote offering story suggestions. Lofting seemed happy to comply with the requests for more, and in 1922 he produced the first of many Dolittle sequels. The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle introduces the character of Tommy Stubbins, who becomes the Doctor's apprentice and also serves as narrator of the book. As seen though the boy's wide eyes, our hapless, top-hatted hero becomes a matter-of-factly self-confident, flute-playing deliverer of dreams-come-true. Voyages is a beautifully written book, as well as being that rarest of literary phenomena--a sequel worthy of its original. In 1923, by a vote of the members of the Children's Librarians section of the American Library Association, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle won the Newbery Medal (in the second year of the prestigious prize's existence).
Not surprisingly, "Doctor Dolittles"'s family kept pets. At one point there were four dogs, including one that Lofting and his children chose from that London petshop he had liked to visit years before, as a boy.
In 1927, Flora Lofting died. Hugh Lofting re-married in 1928, and-- adding loss to loss-- his second wife, Katherine Harrower Peters, became ill and died that same year. In Three Bodley Head Monographs, Edward Blishen claims that one can see in the Dolittle books of those years a "deepening of Lofting's pessimism about human affairs." Doctor Dolittle's Garden, published in 1927, had as a leading character a wasp who described a human battle. And Doctor Dolittle in the Moon, published in 1928, was intended to finish the series altogether. Popular demand could not be gainsaid, however, and the hero came back five years later in Doctor Dolittle's Return.
Though unable to write at the pace that had characterized his earlier career, Lofting did produce another published book during this period. In 1941, as the second "war to end all wars" was raging in Europe, he gave voice to his hard-won pacifism by composing a "passionate, despairing poem on the recurrence and futility of war in human history." Victory for the Slain would not be published in the US, however, for by the end of that year his adopted homeland was at war with Japan, and such a poem was not seen as suiting the moment. Instead, it was published in Britain in 1942.
Hugh Lofting, whose health had been failing, became very ill during the last two years of his life, and he died on September 26, 1947, in Topanga, California, at the age of 61. He is buried in Killingsworth, Connecticut.
[Many thanks to Christopher Lofting for providing the images used above, and for making corrections to my text.]