THE VETERINARIAN WHO BECAME AN AUTHOR
by Stan Griffin
James Alfred Wight, a British veterinarian and author, was trying to find a suitable title for a book due to be published in the United States. His daughter, Rosie, was familiar with C. F. Alexander's childrens' hymn "Maker of Heaven and Earth." She suggested that her father use a line from that hymn. Wight liked her idea. When the book went on sale in this country's bookstores (1972), the cover proclaimed "All Creatures Great and Small." Also appearing on the cover as author was "James Herriot," Wight's " pseudonym" (a fictitious name used by a writer).
Wight's book about his experiences as a small-town veterinarian enjoyed great success in the U. S. and in other countries as well. This first volume was followed by a dozen more, most making appearances on best-seller lists. Before he had written his last book, Wight borrowed lines from "Maker of Heaven and Earth" for three more titles--the entire first verse of Mrs. Alexander's hymn. All told, his books sold 50 million copies in 20 countries and was translated into 12 languages (including Japanese).
Known to his friends as "Alf," Wight was in his 50s before his first book appeared in print. At that point, he had been a working veterinarian for a quarter century. Even after he became famous, he continued to treat patients. At the time of his death in 1995, Wight had been taking care of animals for 50 years. All of those years were spent in the village of Thirsk, North Yorkshire, northern England.
Wight was born in Sunderland, northern England, on October 13, 1916. At the age of three weeks, he and his family moved to Glasgow, Scotland. It was there that he grew up and was educated.
His father worked in shipyards and also was a member of a theater orchestra which provided background music for silent films. His mother was a singer, and she performed occasionally in music halls with her husband.
After completing high school, Wight spent six years at Glasgow Veterinary College (1933-1939), becoming a qualified MRCVS (Member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons) in December, 1939.
The next year Wight saw an ad for a job in the Yorkshire Dales. He traveled to the village of Thirsk for an interview with Donald Sinclair. After tea, Sinclair immediately invited Wight to join his practice which also included his brother, Brian Sinclair. Wight accepted on the spot, and moved all his belongings to Thirsk where he went to work immediately.
World War II interrupted life in the Dales as all three of the vets saw military service. Wight was called up in 1941, and he spent 2 1/2 years in the R. A. F. (Royal Air Force). He returned to Thirsk in 1943 with a medical discharge and resumed his "vetting."
Wight had met a local girl, Joan Danbury, before he entered the R. A. F. He was stationed for a period of time at a base not far from Thirsk. Alf and Joan were ;married on November 5, 1941. Their first child, James Alexander ( "Jimmy"-- sometimes called Seamus), was born on February 13, 1943. The fourth (and last) member of the family put in her appearance in 1947 when Rosemary Beatrice ("Rosie") was born.
For most of his life, Alf had kept a diary . He continued to do so after becoming a veterinarian, describing his cases: the animals and their owners as well as memorable incidents. Using this professional journal, Wight began writing short stories. In a sense, he was "... practicing to become a professional writer ..."
In the 1960s Wight put together a series of those stories, mostly from his first year in the practice. He used facts and also added extra material, producing a final product that was " ... heavily fictionalized ..." This is an accurate description of every book Wight wrote, so they can accurately be called "novels."
Published in Great Britain (1970), "If Only They Could Talk" was just a "moderate" success. The following year his publisher brought out a second book, "It Shouldn't Happen To A Vet," stories of Wight's second year experiences. It too received only a lukewarm reception from readers.
Wight's breakthrough came late in 1972 when a new publisher proposed combining the first two books, adding three chapters, and distributing it in the U. S. for the first time. As related earlier, daughter Rosie's suggestion for a title sent it across the ocean as "All Creatures Great and Small."
From this point on, Wight was on his way to becoming a world-famous author as his career took off. His third book, "Let Sleeping Vets Lie," came out in 1973. He visited the U. S. to promote sales that same year.
Wight was a very prolific writer for a time. In a period of seven years, he produced six books. He began to receive volumes of fan mail, and soon his little village became a popular stop for tourists. In spite of his fame, he kept up with his practice.
Two feature films were made from Wight's stories. In 1974 "Vets in Harness" starring Anthony Hopkins and Simon Ward, came to the silver screen. Two years later "It Shouldn't Happen To A Vet" was released.
Then came the event that sent Wight skyrocketing even higher on the world scene. The BBC (British Broadcasting Company) began filming a television series based on his work. They called it "All Creatures Great and Small." The first episode was broadcast in 1978. For 12 years it was a worldwide hit.
Actors Christopher Timothy, Robert Hardy, and Peter Davison portrayed respectively: Wight (Herriot), Donald Sinclair (Siegfried Farnon), and Brian Sinclair (Tristan Farnon). Two actresses were cast as Joan Wight (Helen Harriot): Carol Drinkwater (Years 1-3) and Lynda Bellingham (Years 4-12).
Book sales were spurred by the television program. At a midpoint in its life, it had an estimated 13 million people watching regularly. And in 1990, when the last episode was broadcast, its viewing numbers were only slightly less. In fact, at one point U. S. viewership reached 37 million for individual episodes. It was seen in 42 countries.
Wight's children both chose to follow medical careers. His son Jimmy became a vet and joined his father's practice in 1967. His daughter Rosie graduated from medical school and set up shop as a general practitioner.
Alf's books and the TV series were very profitable, earning him millions of dollars (or pounds). There were some drawbacks to his fame, however. His privacy suffered with tourists " ... always around ..." standing in lines outside his office to get autographs and sometimes even invading his examing rooms. He signed a lot of autographs which led to another problem.
Wight developed a case of "osteoarthritis" from all the autograph signing. His little finger was bent back permanently against his palm.
He received an American award for "service to the veterinary world." When he told the sponsoring organization that he couldn't come to the U. S. for a presentation, they came to Thirsk for a ceremony.
Alf was honored by his country in 1979 when he received the OBE (Order of the British Empire), one of the most prestigious awards a Briton can receive. His citation read: "For Services to Literature." The award was presented at Buckingham Palace by Prince Charles who commented to Wight how he enjoyed the TV series.
Alf also was named a FRCVS (Friend of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons). A university in Liverpool gave him an honorary degree as Doctor of Veterinary Science (1983), and the University of Edinburg (Scotland) made him an honorary Doctor of Literature.
In 1992 Wight was the first to receive the Chiron Award from the British Veterinary Association for "exceptional service to the veterinary profession."
Alf was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1992, and doctors gave him only 3-5 years to live. His last months were painful and uncomfortable. He worked at his "vetting" until he was just too ill to continue.
James Alfred Wight died on February 23, 1995 at home in his own bed. The next day his son kept a promise Alf had made to Glasgow University a few months earlier. They were opening a new, state-of-the-art library at their veterinary school; its name would be the "James Herriot Library." They wanted him to be present, and Wight had agreed. Jimmy was there instead, and he said later "He got more enjoyment out of this honor than all the others put together."
Wight's funeral was private, restricted to family and close friends. Part of the service was the singing of Hymn Number 573 from the Church of England's "Hymns Ancient and Modern": "Maker of Heaven and Earth" by C. F. Alexander. Afterwards, he was cremated; and his ashes were scattered over the Yorkshire moors.
In October of that year, a public memorial function was held in York Minster Church. Nearly 2,000 people attended: farmers, fellow vets, literary colleagues. Among the speakers were Alf's granddaughter Emma, his son Jimmy, and two of the TV series cast members: Christopher Timothy and Robert Hardy. The full church choir also sang Hymn Number 573 which begins:
"All things bright and beautiful, All creatures great and small, All things wise and wonderful, The Lord God made them all."
Thus two residents of the British Isles who lived in different centuries will forever be linked in the minds of many: An Irish poetess and hymn writer (Cecil Frances Alexander); and a Scottish veterinarian and novelist who borrowed some of her words (James Alfred Wight also known as James Herriot).
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