James Herriot

1916 - 1995

James Alfred Wight, otherwise known as James Herriott, graced the 20th century with his humorous stories of animals, their owners and the Yorkshire Dales where he lived and practiced as a veterinarian.   Born in Sunderland, England, he didn’t remain there long; at the young age of 3 weeks, his mother took “Alfie” as he was known, to Glasgow, Scotland where he spent the majority of his growing up years.   Filled with many hours romping with his friends in the Scottish countryside just a few minutes from his home, his childhood was an exceptionally happy one.  Both parents were accomplished musicians and with instruction from his father, Alf spent many hours of practice on the piano.   After finishing his beginning education at Yoker Primary School, Alf’s mother determined to provide the very best secondary education for him, and he enrolled at the fee-paying Hillhead High School in Glasgow.  As a reward for his high academic marks, his parents presented him with the first of many canine companions, Don, an Irish Setter puppy.  Subsequently, a large portion of his time (when not studying) was spent walking in the nearby Kilpatrick Hills and other areas near his home with his dog. 

At the age of thirteen, after reading an article in a magazine featuring animal doctors as a career choice and listening to a lecture about veterinary medicine from a prominent veterinarian within just a few weeks of each other, Alf made the decision to pursue it as his own goal.  He began his formal veterinary education in the fall of 1933 and spent the next six years learning all he could at the Glasgow Veterinary College, qualifying as a veterinary surgeon in December of 1939.  Although he was not particularly distinguished, passing pathology with just a mark of 40%, one professor noted that although he was “lacking in brilliance, (he) showed a perception of the subject which I personally found rewarding.”

In 1940, he began his veterinary practice at 23 Kirkgate in the quiet village of Thirsk, Yorkshire, and against the wishes of his parents, married Joan Danbury soon after.  In 1942, he enlisted in the RAF and became one of the first to fly solo in his regiment.  Due to a major surgery, he was deemed unfit to fly combat aircraft and was subsequently discharged.  Returning to 23 Kirkgate, he continued his quiet practice treating the menagerie of creatures in the nearby Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors.

After practicing veterinary medicine for over 25 years, he notes in his book, James Herriot’s Yorkshire, “When I first started to write at the advanced age of fifty, I thought it would stop at one book and nobody would ever discover the identity of the obscure veterinary surgeon who had scribbled his experiences in snatched moments of spare time.”  In an interview with Scotsman journalist, William Foster, he further described how he got started on his first book.  “It was terribly hard work, and I loved it.  I felt vaguely that I ought to write about it and every day for twenty-five years I told my wife of something funny that had happened and said I was keeping it for the book…She usually said, ‘Yes, dear’ to humour me but one day…she said: “Who are you kidding? Vets of fifty don’t write first books.’”  Something about those words spurred him forward, and he said, “I stormed out and bought some paper and taught myself to type.”  Writing didn’t come easy to him at first.  He spent four years honing his craft, persisting despite receiving publisher rejection letters.  During this time, he adopted a pseudonym, noting that he believed his peers might find it unethical for him to write under his own name.  He told Arturo Gonzalez of the Saturday Review, “So, I was sitting in front of the TV tapping out one of my stories and there was this fellow James Herriot playing such a good game of soccer for Birmingham that I just took his name.” 

His first book, If Only They Could Talk, was published in Great Britain in 1970.  Soon after, the original book was published together with It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet under the title of All Creatures Great and Small becoming an instant bestseller in the United States. The series was launched—each new book eagerly anticipated by readers on both sides of the Atlantic.  

A very modest man who desired privacy, the immediate popularity of his book series when published in the 1970s required that he and his family relocate to the even smaller village of Thirlby where he lived until his death in 1995.

The enduring and timeless stories James Alfred Wight penned of animals and the people who own and love them provide countless hours of enjoyable reading or listening.  Through his obvious love for each dog, cat, cow and sheep he encountered, he evokes nostalgia of a better time, affording realistic hope and basic decency to each creature (human and animal) he meets, inspiring us, the readers, to do the same. 

Deanna Knoll