Dr. James A. Wight's experiences in barns and homes reached millions
By Greg Cima
Posted June 15, 2011
Dr. James Alfred Wight entertained millions with his stories about emergency calls that spoiled meals, late-night pleas to aid a healthy dog, and the surprise survival of livestock that seemed to be dying.
"That's veterinary practice for you. You get a lot of nasty shocks, but some lovely surprises, too," Dr. Wight wrote under the pen name Dr. James Herriot in the book "The Lord God Made Them All."
Legends in Veterinary Medicine
In honor of World Veterinary Year, JAVMA is highlighting key international veterinarians from the past 250 years.
The mixed animal veterinarian from Yorkshire told his stories of rural practice in England through his books and the television programs based on his works. Yet, Dr. Wight described himself as "99 percent veterinarian and one percent writer," according to the book "All Things Herriot: James Herriot and His Peaceable Kingdom."
Dr. Wight's son, Dr. James Alexander Wight, wrote in his 1999 book "The Real James Herriot: A Memoir of my Father" that the elder Dr. Wight was a modest gentleman who was bemused by his success and who put his family's interests ahead of his own.
"During his years of fame, my father received mountains of fan mail from all over the world," the book states. "His stories entranced so many of his readers that they felt compelled to write and tell him how much his books meant to them."
The memoir states that more than 60 million copies of Dr. Wight's books have been sold, and the stories had been translated into more than 20 languages.
© Barry Lewis/In Pictures/Corbis
Before his death in February 1995, Dr. Wight received accolades from veterinary associations, universities, and British royalty. JAVMA archives state that Dr. Wight was an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons; a winner of the Literary Prize from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland; a recipient of the Order of the British Empire; and a recipient of the AVMA Award of Appreciation.
When he won the British Veterinary Association's first Chiron Award in 1992, the association honored him for helping to show society that veterinary medicine is both a science and an art dedicated to the welfare of animals and concern for their owners. The award is given for outstanding contributions to veterinary science or the veterinary profession.
Days following Dr. Wight's death, a library at the Glasgow Veterinary College was dedicated to him.
Becoming Dr. Herriot
Dr. Wight's most famous book, "All Creatures Great and Small," and three of his other books took their names from lines of the 19th century hymn "All Things Bright and Beautiful" by Cecil Frances Alexander:
"All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all."
The title "All Creatures Great and Small" was also used for the film and television series based on Dr. Wight's works.
Despite his eventual success, Dr. Wight did not start writing until he was 50, and his works were repeatedly rejected before a publisher accepted a manuscript for "If Only They Could Talk," according to author Sanford Sternlicht, PhD, in "All Things Herriot."
Dr. Sternlicht also wrote that Dr. Wight felt he could not publish under his real name, because professional ethics discouraged advertising, so he adopted the name James Herriot from a Bristol City soccer goalkeeper who was doing well in a game that was broadcast as Dr. Wight typed.
"If Only They Could Talk" and a second book, "It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet," sold only a few thousand copies before a New York publisher republished the books together, along with three additional chapters the publisher requested from Dr. Wight to add a marriage to the story, Dr. Sternlicht wrote. The resulting book was "All Creatures Great and Small."
Books boosted veterinarians' image
Although many of Dr. Wight's stories revolve around experiences with patients and clinical calls, they tell much more about life in small English towns and the often amusing, surprising, or frustrating interactions with Yorkshire residents.
© Estate of Fay Godwin/British Library/National Portrait Gallery, London
Dr. Elizabeth A. Stone, dean of the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph and a co-founder of the Society for Veterinary Medicine and Literature, said that Dr. Wight's widely read works color the perception of what is a real veterinarian, and she said numerous veterinary students have indicated his books have influenced or reinforced their decision to become a veterinarian. His books provide an image of veterinarians as caring for people and animals, although she noted that the books have contributed to a lingering impression that each veterinarian treats "all creatures great and small."
"It was good to be able to work with animals in this thrilling countryside; I was lucky to be a vet in the Yorkshire Dales."
Dr. James A Wight aka Dr. James Herriot, in the book "Every Living Thing"
While Dr. Stone said that Dr. Wight's writing describes diseases and treatment, his stories are timeless, in part, because of the rich accounts of the people of Yorkshire and the emphasis on his relationships as a veterinarian with animals and people.
Dr. Wight's stories are also used in relating practice scenarios to veterinary students, Dr. Stone said. She said one such story involves an elderly woman who claimed to have no money, bargained with Dr. Herriot to spay her cat at a low price, and refused to pay for the service until the stitches were removed. The scenario has been used in discussions with students about how to work with clients, including those who claim to have no money or who make appeals to veterinarians' kindness and caring for animals and people.
Dr. Stone also thinks that Dr. Wight's writing captures the joy he felt in being a veterinarian, and that joy is something veterinarians should not lose sight of. Citing the first chapter of "Every Living Thing," Dr. Stone retold a story of Dr. Herriot treating a tall draft horse with an antihistamine and a proprietary preparation for urticaria, only to watch the animal convulse, collapse, and rise moments later.
She expects that most veterinarians can relate to the feeling of dread and the questions of what to do next when a treatment has an unexpected effect. Yet, she notes that the chapter ends with Dr. Herriot sitting in his vehicle a short distance from the farm, admiring the green, white, and gold landscape, and reflecting on the possibility that he may have done nothing wrong and that the reaction to the drug was not unique.
"It was good to be able to work with animals in this thrilling countryside; I was lucky to be a vet in the Yorkshire Dales," Dr. Wight wrote.
Dr. Stone said Dr. Wight's stories also provide "a lens to reflect on contemporary issues," and his works are still applicable today.
"I would encourage people to read Herriot's stories, even if they have read them before," Dr. Stone said.