Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 989
James Alfred (“Alf”) Wight, better known by his pen name, James Herriot (HEH-ree-uht), was born on October 3, 1916, in Sunderland, England. He was the only child of James Henry Wight, a musician, and Hannah Bell Wight, a singer. Three weeks after his birth, his family moved to Hillhead, a suburb of Glasgow, Scotland.
When he was thirteen years old, Herriot read an article in Meccano Magazine that made him decide to become a veterinarian treating small animals. However, when he graduated from Glasgow Veterinary School in 1938, jobs were scarce. He took a position as assistant to J. Donald Sinclair, who had a rural veterinary practice in Thirsk in the Yorkshire Dales in northern England. Donald’s brother, Brian, also worked for the practice. Finding himself treating mostly large rather than small animals, Herriot quickly realized that he loved working with farm animals, loved the rugged countryside in which the practice was located, and greatly admired most of the farmers and farm workers with whom he interacted. When he first began practice, the draft horse was in widespread use. Gradually, the tractor replaced the horse, and his practice of veterinary medicine changed accordingly.
On November 5, 1941, Herriot married Joan Catherine Danbury, and on the same day he was made a partner in Donald Sinclair’s practice. In 1943, during World War II, he joined the British Royal Air Force. In 1944, he went absent without leave (AWOL) for a brief period to be present at the birth of his first child, Nicholas James Wight, who later became a veterinarian and practiced with his father. Herriot was not caught while he was AWOL. He was discharged from the air force in 1945 because of health problems that kept him from flying.
He then returned to practice in Thirsk. According to his biographers, it was when he was in the air force and away from the Dales that he realized how much he loved that area of England and loved being a rural veterinarian there. His daughter, Rosemary, was born on May 9, 1949. She, too, wanted to become a veterinarian, but Herriot considered that life too physically difficult for a female, so she became a physician and practiced in Yorkshire. When Nicholas and Rosemary were young, they used to make rounds with their father, visiting the remote farms with him on the Yorkshire Dales.
Herriot made several trips abroad, one to the Soviet Union in 1961 as a sheep veterinarian, one to Turkey in 1963 by airplane as a cattle veterinarian, and two to the United States in the 1970’s to publicize his books. Most of the rest of his life was spent in and around Yorkshire.
In his late forties, Herriot decided that he needed an additional source of income, so he decided to try writing. He wrote under the pseudonym James Herriot because he believed that veterinarians should not advertise and that publishing works about his practice under his own name would be a form of advertising. He also changed the name of his partner to Siegfried Farnon and the name of his partner’s brother to Tristan Farnon. The town in which he lived became Darrowby, actually an amalgam of several towns in the area.
His first attempts at writing were short stories based on his work as a veterinarian. Periodicals rejected them. To better prepare himself, he read books about writing and reread works by some of his favorite authors, including Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Ernest Hemingway. As a result, he decided to take his short stories and rework them into full-length books. He published two books in England, If Only They Could Talk in 1970 and It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet in 1972, but neither sold well.
Thomas McCormack, president of St. Martin’s Press in New York, discovered both books when he was in England in 1972 and took them home with him. At the urging of his wife, McCormack read the books and decided to publish them as one volume. He had Herriot rework the material slightly to make a single volume and to add material about his marriage at the end of the book. As a result, All Creatures Great and Small was released in the United States in 1972 and quickly became a best seller. It remains Herriot’s most popular book.
He then wrote a series of three more books, all of which, like All Creatures Great and Small, took their titles from the Anglican hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” These books were All Things Bright and Beautiful (1973), All Things Wise and Wonderful (1977), and The Lord God Made Them All (1981). He also published a number of books for children, such as Moses the Kitten (1984), Only One Woof (1985), and The Market Square Dog (1989). A collection of his dog stories appeared in 1986 and a collection of cat stories in 1994. In 1992, he published his last major book, Every Living Thing, as well as James Herriot’s Treasury for Children. In 1979, he departed from his usual books about animals to publish James Herriot’s Yorkshire, with photographs by Derry Brabbs, a tribute to the land he had come to love.
Herriot was diagnosed with cancer in 1992 and died from that disease in 1995. In 1996, James Herriot’s Favorite Dog Stories was released in a new edition with an introduction that is believed to be the last thing he wrote.
Several films are based on Herriot’s works. Probably the most popular was the television series All Creatures Great and Small, produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in 1978, which drew on a number of his books. Herriot won numerous honors for his works, including the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Award of Appreciation (1975), the Order of the British Empire (1979), an honorary doctorate from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland (1979), and an honorary doctorate from Liverpool University in England (1983). He served as president of the Yorkshire Veterinary Society from 1973 to 1974 and was made a fellow of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons in 1982.