LONDON — James Herriot, who shared his experiences as a country veterinarian in the best-selling memoir “All Creatures Great and Small,” died Thursday in the Yorkshire Dales where he had ministered to animals for half a century. He was 78. He died of prostate cancer at his home near Thirsk, his granddaughter, Emma Page, said.
“He had been ill for three years, but he had borne his illness very patiently and bravely. His family were all with him when he died peacefully at home today,” she said.
Herriot — the pen name and alter ego of James Alfred Wight — wrote 15 books in the time that he could wrest away from his practice. They sold 50 million copies in 20 countries. But he continued his veterinary practice long after his books made him famous. “If a farmer calls me with a sick animal, he couldn’t care less if I were George Bernard Shaw,” he once said.
A quiet, modest man with a trace of his Glasgow upbringing in his voice, “Alf” Wight kept out of the limelight as best he could. Despite the pen name, many fans tracked him down at Skeldale House, the ivy-covered home and office familiar to his readers and viewers of the popular British television series based on “All Creatures Great and Small.”
The son of an orchestra leader who played background music for silent films, he was born Oct. 13, 1916, and grew up in Glasgow. He trained at Glasgow Veterinary College, arriving in Thirsk in 1940 for a now-famous job interview with Donald Sinclair — Siegfried Farnon in the book.
He joined the practice and, aided and abetted by the hapless Tristan — Sinclair’s brother, Brian — settled in among the dour farmers of the Yorkshire Dales.
He started writing when he was 50.
“I was dumbfounded by the reaction to that first book, absolutely dumbfounded,” he told the Daily Mail in 1981. “The most I had hoped for was that someone would publish it and a few people quite enjoy reading it.”
New York Times – July 8, 1995
Donald Sinclair, an English country veterinarian who was the model for a character in books by James Herriot, including “All Creatures Great and Small,” and in the television series of the same title, died on June 28, The Scotsman, an Edinburgh-based newspaper, reported on Monday. He was 84 and lived in Thirlby in Yorkshire.
Mr. Sinclair was the inspiration for Siegfried Farnon, a character who has been called twinkly, avuncular and a bit absent-minded in his television incarnation.
James Herriot was the pen name of Mr. Sinclair’s former veterinary partner, Alf Wight, who died earlier this year. The best-known Herriot book, “All Creatures Great and Small” came out in Britain in 1971. It is still in print, in the United States from St. Martin’s Press, Bantam and G. K. Hall.
The Herriot stories center on the adventures of three veterinarians in Yorkshire before and during World War II, which is not surprising since Mr. Sinclair, his brother Brian, and Mr. Wight worked together there during that period. Donald Sinclair was said to have disliked the attention the stories drew to him.
The Scotsman reported that the actor Robert Hardy, who portrayed Siegfried on television, was a close friend and frequent house-guest of Mr. Sinclair and his wife, and that “Herriot fans who knew Mr. Sinclair insisted that Robert Hardy had his character and humor exactly right.”
But Mr. Hardy said he did not meet Mr. Sinclair until after he had settled on his own interpretation of the character. “I always wished I’d known him before,” he was quoted as saying. “It would have helped me to perfect a much more interesting character.”
Brian Sinclair died in 1988, and Donald Sinclair’s wife of 53 years, Audrey, died last month. He is survived by a daughter, Jan, and a son, Alan.
Joan Wight, Wife and Model for Author Herriot
Published: July 18, 1999 in the New York Times
Joan Wight, the widow of the Yorkshire veterinarian who wrote under the name James Herriot and the model for a character in his books and television programs based on them, died on Wednesday. She was in her 80’s.
Ms. Wight’s health slowly declined after her husband died in 1995 at age 78, said Thomas McCormack, the former editor in chief of St. Martin’s Press, which published the first five Herriot books.
Her husband, whose real name was James Alfred Wight, vividly depicted his wife as the endearing and supportive Helen Herriot in his memoirs, beginning with ”All Creatures Great and Small.” Mr. McCormack described Ms. Wight as the model for ”the humorous, loving and, from time to time, tolerating wife of James Herriot.”
”All Creatures Great and Small” became the basis for a long-running television series, which was originally a BBC-TV production and later a cable television series in the United States. Its accounts of rural life attracted an audience of millions around the world.
On television, Helen was played first by Carol Drinkwater and later by Lynda Bellingham. In a 1979 movie, ”All Things Bright and Beautiful,” Helen was portrayed by Lisa Harrow.
Although ”All Creatures Great and Small” became a best seller, it was not reviewed until months after its publication, when strongly positive word-of-mouth reports had begun to make it famous.
One episode in the first Herriot book describes how Ms. Wight met her future husband. She grew up on a farm in Yorkshire not far from ”the surgery,” as Mr. Wight’s veterinary hospital was known.
One day, she brought in a calf with a broken leg. Mr. Wight repaired the damage with a splint. Later, she brought in a dog with a dislocated hip, and this time, he had eyes only for her. They soon became engaged.
”A characteristic scene comes in the final chapter of ‘All Creatures Great and Small,’ ” Mr. McCormack said. ”The scene tells of Joan’s and James’s honeymoon, which is interrupted by a sudden, mad crush of work, which kills their hope of taking a trip. As Joan sits with notebook on her knee and pencil at the ready, she smiles. It was a magnificent, loving ending.”
Ms. Wight is survived by a son, James, and a daughter, Rosemary Page, both of Yorkshire in northern England.
14 Replies to “Obituary”
Thank for the gifts of feelings and kindness to all the creatures and stepping stones for those of us to use as a looking glass for others to see.
Hi, I loved everything about James Herriot (Alf). I met Donald Sinclair with my wife and 2 y.o. daughter when he was 80 on the driveway leading up to his house, he was in the process of cutting down a christmas tree, I must say he looked very fit for a man of his age. He was very gracious and allowed me to film him whilst he was talking to my wife. So sad about his demise, he had lost his brother, then Alf and then his wife, the poor man must have lost the will to live. I wish I had known him longer.
I met Jim Wight at Skeldale house when enquiring about a home to rent which was near Donalds home at Thirlby. I also saw him at a Guy Forks night at a place opposite the Whitestone Cliffe pub. I also briefly met Rosie when I took my daughter to the doctors in Thirsk.
James was still alive during our 2 months stay in 1989/1990 but sadly I did not meet him.
We loved our time in the dales and long to go back.
Itâ€™s well known James Herriot had a great affection for dogs, yet his cat stories show an inclination as well. Did any particular cat influence Herriot in his writing?
Great stuff. Excellent characters. Very true to life stories with plenty of slapstick comedy. Thoroughly enjoyable with a few tear jerkers thrown in.
I read and enjoyed the books Mr. Wight wrote and watched the television series here in the U.S many years ago now. Mr. Wight touched the lives of many people during his life including myself as well as many animals during his years of practice as a veterinarian…May you rest in peace Mr. Wight and thank you..
Thank you Alf Wight, and all the people and animal characters you created for your lovely books, the first three of which I just finished reading, and already sent copies to my daughter!
Such gracious people, you are my family now; feeling blessed by the time spent with you all in Yorkshire, my first visit!
I have just finished reading the complete set of books. I absolutely loved all of them. I must say I shed a little tear as I finished the last page of the last book as I will miss James and his wonderful stories.
I have just started reading Alf Wight’s second book after reading his first book years ago. Being stationed at RAF Lakenheath in Norfolk in 1975-76, I was endeared to the people and countryside of Northern England and Scotland. Alf Wight’s books faithfully portrayed these people and countryside. And Alf himself embodied the best of the people of Northern England and Scotland. Without thinking, I was hoping to email Alf and thank him for being someone I would have loved to count as my friend but then I realized that too many years had passed for me to do so. And so I am hoping I can share these feelings with his family who I am sure inherited his kindness and humor and love for animals and people.
Thank you for the wonderful books which I read many years ago as a child growing up in India. These books were my inspiration to become a veterinarian and were my holy grail all through vet school in Illinois. To this day, when I am feeling sad or down, I read these books. I was thrilled to visit Skeldale house in 2019, it was a very emotional visit for me. So, thank you to you Drs. Wight and the Sinclairs, to all the animals that you have taken care and to your families.
Like thousands of readers of the, James Heriot books, i now watch the original tv series and the latest series as well. All tv has to offer are awful murders and really im not a Jane Austen fan .I will be so sad when i finish watching all the episodes, but will start at the beginning again! Real life, helping animals.Wonderful.
I was given Jim Wight’s book about his father’s life for Christmas by my wife. I rarely read any books other than as occasional car manual. It was an addictive read which I am now re-reading, to see if I missed anything !
I very quickly realised that Alf Wight was born just a few months after my father and having qualified as a dentist was in Scarborough in the RAF in the early 40’s before eventually having a practice and living in Pickering from the early 50’s until his death nearly 30 years later.
Both clearly loved and were dedicated to their respective professions.
Hoping to visit Thirsk in the summer.
I am reading the James Herriot books for the second time. I read them back in the early 1970s when I was a young wife. Now as an old woman I’m enjoying them again. I have always loved animals and as a girl I wanted to become a veterinarian.
My grandparents lived in Thirsk and we visited often from Leeds. There were occasions when they had to call in ‘The Vet’ to attend to one or other of the small animals. I was fascinated by the gentleness of these guys and they always made them better! I have read all the books of Herriot and escapades and good work and I shall be reading them again having seen the article in the Saturday Express – which brought back some very happy memories!!
I feel like I’ve grown up reading and watching the wonderful stories and tv shows of James Herriot. Alf Wight must have been a very special person, and I’m forever thankful that he shared so much of his life with the rest of the world.
Myself and my partner sometimes work for the Veterinary College, helping to teach communication skills to young vet students. I keep James Herriot in mind at all times, and try to convey to them, what I believe, were the qualities James, aka Alf tried to live and work by. Thank you for many years of enjoyment.