By Ginny A. Roth ~
A marvelous thing happened on March 2, 1904. A boy by the name of Theodor Seuss Geisel was born and although the world did not know it at the time, he would grow up to become one of the world’s best-loved, and best-selling, children’s book writers.
Most people know Geisel as Dr. Seuss, but many are unaware that he started his career as a freelance editorial cartoonist in the 1920s. His cartoons were published in Life, Vanity Fair, and Liberty among others. In 1928, Geisel achieved national exposure with a cartoon that was published in the humor magazine, Judge, in which a character says, “Darn it all, another dragon. And just after I’d sprayed the whole castle with Flit!” Flit was a pesticide created by Standard Oil Company. Geisel was then hired to draw their magazine advertising art, and continued to draw large insects with the slogan, “Quick, Henry! The Flit!” for the next 15 years.
This wouldn’t be the only time Geisel would spend his time drawing insects. Although he had started writing children’s books in the 1930s, the onset of World War II caused him to switch his focus to the war effort. In 1943, Geisel volunteered for service and was commissioned as Commander, Capt. Theodor Geisel of the Animation Department, First Motion Picture unit, based in Hollywood, California. He worked alongside famous cartoonists and filmmakers including Chuck Jones and Frank Capra producing animated training films, booklets and documentaries, including the adventures of Private Snafu, a series of short, animated films staring an Army private fouling up situations such as using a gas mask, using weapons, feigning sickness, and preventing malaria.
Geisel also teamed up with fellow children’s book writer/illustrator, Munro Leaf, to create a publication that would assist with the ongoing malaria problem in the South Pacific despite the wide distribution of military manuals about malaria prevention. Geisel and Leaf believed these materials to be boring and concluded that soldiers were either not reading them or not making a connection between malaria and mosquitoes. Therefore, the two wrote and illustrated a truly unique pamphlet called This is Ann, a story about Anopheles Annie, the malaria mosquito, portrayed as the “vixen” of the insect world, spreading disease to men who failed to take proper precautions.
By the end of his life, Geisel had written and illustrated forty-four children’s books, more than 400 World War II political cartoons, and hundreds of advertisements and editorials. His work continues to inspire artists and delight new audiences through celebrity book readings and movies based on his lovable characters. Children and adults remain charmed by his encouraging lessons with fantastical vocabulary on the wings of whimsical creatures.
Be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea,
you’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So…get on your way!”
Ginny A. Roth is the Curator of Prints & Photographs in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.