James Herriot

James Herriot is the pen name of James Alfred Wight, OBE, also known as Alf Wight (3 October 1916 – 23 February 1995), a British veterinary surgeon and writer. Wight is best known for his semi-autobiographical stories, often referred to collectively as "All Creatures Great and Small", a title used in some editions and in film and television adaptations.


James Alfred Wight was born on 3 October 1916 in Sunderland, County Durham, to James (1890-1960) and Hannah (1890-1980) Wight. Shortly after their wedding, the Wights moved from Blandford Street, Sunderland to Glasgow in Scotland, where James took work as a pianist at a local cinema, and Hannah was a singer. For Alf's birth, his mother returned to Sunderland, bringing him back to Glasgow when he was three weeks old. He attended Yoker Primary School and Hillhead High School.

In 1939, at the age of twenty-three, he qualified as a veterinary surgeon from Glasgow Veterinary College. In January 1940 he took a brief job at a veterinary practice in Sunderland, but moved in July to work in a rural practice based in the town of Thirsk, Yorkshire, close to the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors, where he was to remain for the rest of his life. On 5 November 1941, he married Joan Catherine Anderson Danbury. The couple had two children, James Alexander (Jim), born 1943, who also became a vet and was a partner in the practice, and Rosemary (Rosie), born 1947, who became a medical doctor.

From 1942, Wight served in the Royal Air Force. His wife moved to her parents' house during this time, and upon being discharged from the RAF as a Leading Aircraftman, Wight joined her. They lived here until 1946, at which point they moved back to 23 Kirkgate, staying until 1953. Later, he moved with his wife to a house on Topcliffe Road, Thirsk, opposite the secondary school. The original practice is now a museum, "The World of James Herriot", while the Topcliffe Road house is now in private ownership and not open to the public. He later moved with his family to the village of Thirlby, about 4 miles from Thirsk, where he lived until his death.

Wight intended for years to write a book, but with most of his time consumed by veterinary practice and family, his writing ambition went nowhere. Challenged by his wife, in 1966 (at the age of 50), he began writing. After several rejected stories on other subjects like football, he turned to what he knew best. "If Only They Could Talk" was published in the United Kingdom in 1969, but sales were slow until Thomas McCormack, of St. Martin's Press in New York City, received a copy and arranged to have the first two books published as a single volume in the United States. The resulting book, titled "All Creatures Great and Small", was an overnight success, spawning six sequels (published as four outside the UK), movies, and a successful television adaptation.

Wight was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1992, and underwent treatment in the Lambert Memorial Hospital in Thirsk. He died 23 February 1995, aged 78, at home in ThirlbyAssociated Press, [http://www.jamesherriot.org/ob.php Obituary] ] .


In 1969 Wight wrote "If Only They Could Talk", the first of the now-famous series based on his life working as a vet and his training in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. In his books, he calls the town where he lives Darrowby, which he based largely on the towns of Thirsk and Sowerby.

The books, which told of the illustrative incidents which happened to him and the people around him, were enormously popular, and by the time of his death he was one of the foremost best-selling authors in both United Kingdom and the United States. Despite his authorial success, he continued practising until a few years before his death with his colleague Donald Sinclair. Owing in part to the British law forbidding veterinary surgeons from advertising, he took a pen name, choosing "James Herriot" after seeing the Scottish goalkeeper Jim Herriot play exceptionally well for Birmingham City F.C. in a televised game against Manchester United. He also renamed Donald and his brother Brian Sinclair as Siegfried and Tristan Farnon, respectively.

As literature, Wight's books don't fit the modern definition of a novel, in that each book doesn't constitute a single narrative. Rather, they are best seen as collections of short stories, following the chronology of Herriot's life. In this way, they are much like the compendium books of Sherlock Holmes stories, where each story stands as a narrative in its own right, but taken together, the collection of stories also becomes greater than the sum of its parts. This style lends itself well to the various collections and adaptations, as selected stories can be enjoyed.

Since the stories are told from the first-person perspective of James Herriot, his character is central to all of the episodes (although this was occasionally changed in the television adaptations, with some stories ending up with Siegfried or Tristan as the primary player). The first story details his arrival in Darrowby in the late 1930s, applying for employment with Siegfried Farnon. The tales continue with his developing experience as a vet, his blossoming romance with local farm girl Helen Alderson, their marriage, his conscription into the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, and the birth and growth of their children (accurately named Jimmy and Rosie).

Wight's storytelling style is clear and simple, and he shows himself to be an astute observer of details, particularly the personality quirks of people, as they sceptically question his treatment recommendations and rely instead on folk medicine and superstition. He takes a very matter-of-fact, clinical approach to veterinary medicine, but explains procedures in a way that is accessible to the layman. The stories vary in tone from heartwarming, to humorous, to tender and sad (but optimistic), to inspiring and romantic.

Wight's books are only partially autobiographical, and the stories and characters should not be assumed to have happened or existed exactly as related. Contrary to popular belief, many of the stories are based only loosely on real events or people, and thus can be considered primarily fiction. Even when writing accurately of real events and people, Wight frequently employed authorial licence to present them in a manner that bore little relation to the genuine chronology of his life.

For example, the books imply that Wight joined the practice in 1937; in It Shouldn't Happen To A Vet, the period is stated as 1938 and reference is made to Wight having been working in Yorkshire for a year. In reality, Wight was employed in July 1940, having been taken on specifically to run the practice while Sinclair was serving in the RAF. Despite the impression given by Vet In Harness that Sinclair's military service began only shortly before Wight's, Wight himself was not conscripted until 1942.

Other examples of Wight's dramatic licence include the implication that Thirsk represented his first professional employment after leaving veterinary college (he was actually employed as a vet for six months in Sunderland following his graduation), and that he was given a partnership as a wedding present; in reality, Wight married in 1941 but did not become a full partner in the veterinary practice until 1949.

From a historical standpoint, the stories help document a transitional period in the veterinary industry: agriculture was moving from the traditional use of beasts of burden (in England, primarily the draught horse) to reliance upon the mechanical tractor, and medical science was just on the cusp of discovering the antibiotics and other treatments that eliminated many of the ancient remedies still in use. These and other sociological factors prompted a largescale shift in veterinary practice over the course of the 20th century: at the start of the century, virtually all of a vet's time was spent working with farm animals; by the turn of the millennium, the majority of vets practise mostly or exclusively on small animals (dogs, cats, and other pets). In the stories, Wight (as Herriot) occasionally steps out of the narrative at hand, to comment with the benefit of hindsight on the primitive state of vet medicine at the time. Among the episodes included in the books are memories of his first hysterectomy on a cat, and his first (almost disastrous) Caesarian Surgery on a cow.

The Herriot books are often described as "animal stories" (Wight himself was known to refer to them as his "little cat-and-dog stories"Margolis, Jonathan (Dec. 12, 2002). "But It Did Happen To A Vet". "Time Magazine"] ), and given that they are about the life of a country veterinarian, animals certainly play a significant role in most of the stories. However, there are a few of the stories in which animals play little or no part (particularly those about his courtship of Helen), and the overall theme of the stories is actually Yorkshire country life as a whole, with the people and animals being two of the primary elements that give it its distinct character.

The books were adapted into two films and a long-running BBC television programme, all called "All Creatures Great and Small".

At the time of his death, the Reader's Digest Condensed Book volume containing "All Creatures Great And Small" (Volume 96, 1973 #5) was the most popular book in that series' history. His last book, "Every Living Thing", immediately went into the top 10 bestseller list in Britain, and had an 865,000 copy first edition printing in the United States.

Herriot's fame has generated a thriving tourist economy in Thirsk. Local businesses include the "World of James Herriot" museum (located in 23 Kirkgate, the original practice surgery), and a pub called the "Darrowby Fayre".



*"If Only They Could Talk" (1970)
*"It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet" (1972)
*"Let Sleeping Vets Lie" (1973)
*"Vet in Harness" (1974)
*"Vets Might Fly" (1976)
*"Vet in a Spin" (1977)
*"James Herriot's Yorkshire" (1979)
*"The Lord God Made Them All" (1981)
*"Every Living Thing" (1992)
*"James Herriot's Cat Stories" (1994)
*"James Herriot's Favourite Dog Stories" (1995)

Omnibus editions

In the United States, Herriot's novels were considered too short to publish independently, and so several pairs of novels were collected into omnibus volumes. The title "All Creatures Great and Small" was taken from the second line of the hymn "All Things Bright and Beautiful", and inspired by a punning suggestion from Herriot's daughter, who thought the book should be called "Ill Creatures Great and Small".
* "All Creatures Great and Small" (1972) (incorporating "If Only They Could Talk" and "It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet")
* "All Things Bright and Beautiful" (1974) (incorporating "Let Sleeping Vets Lie" and "Vet in Harness")
* "All Things Wise and Wonderful" (1977) (incorporating "Vets Might Fly" and "Vet in a Spin")


ee also

*"All Creatures Great and Small"
*Donald Sinclair (veterinary surgeon)
*Brian Sinclair

External links

* [http://www.worldofjamesherriot.org/ Official James Herriot Website (worldofjamesherriot.org)]
* [http://www.thirsk.org.uk/herriot1.html James Alfred Wight OBE (thirsk.org.uk)]
* [http://www.herriotdaysout.com/ Information on days out in Herriot Country and where to stay]
* [http://www.kruegerbooks.com/books/sig/herriot-james.html Signature of James Herriot - Yorkshire]

NAME=Herriot, James
SHORT DESCRIPTION=British veterinarian and author
DATE OF BIRTH=3 October 1916
PLACE OF BIRTH=Sunderland, United Kingdom
DATE OF DEATH=23 February 1995
PLACE OF DEATH=Thirlby, England

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