Lofting was born in Maidenhead, Berkshire in January 1886 to English and Irish parents. His eldest brother was Hilary Lofting, who later became a novelist in Australia, having emigrated there in 1915.
Hugh Lofting was educated at Mount St Mary's College in Spinkhill, Derbyshire. From 1905 to 1906 he studied abroad, studying civil engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US.
He travelled widely as a civil engineer, before enlisting in the Irish Guards regiment of the British Army to serve in the First World War. Not wishing to write to his children about the brutality of the war, he wrote imaginative letters which later became the foundation of the successful Doctor Dolittle novels for children. Seriously wounded in the war, in 1919 Lofting moved with his family to Killingworth, Connecticut, in the US. He was married three times and had three children, one of whom, his son Christopher, is the executor of his literary estate.
Lofting commented, "For years it was a constant source of shock to me to find my writings amongst 'juveniles'. It does not bother me any more now, but I still feel there should be a category of 'seniles' to offset the epithet."
Hugh Lofting's character Doctor John Dolittle, an English physician from Puddleby-on-the-Marsh in the West Country, who could speak to animals, first saw light in the author's illustrated letters to children, written from the trenches during the War of 1914 to 1918, when actual news, he later said, was either too horrible or too dull. The stories are set in early Victorian England in the 1820s-1840s (The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle gives a date of 1839). He lived in Killingworth, Connecticut while writing most of the installments to the series.
The Story of Doctor Dolittle: Being the History of His Peculiar Life at Home and Astonishing Adventures in Foreign Parts Never Before Printed (1920) began the series and won the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1958. The sequel The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle (1922) won Lofting the prestigious Newbery Medal. Eight more books followed, and after Lofting's death two more volumes appeared, composed of short unpublished pieces.
The internal chronology of the books is somewhat different from the publishing order. The first book is followed by Doctor Dolittle's Post Office (1923), Doctor Dolittle's Circus (1924) and Doctor Dolittle's Caravan (1926). Only then follows the second book, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle (1922), continued by Doctor Dolittle's Zoo (1925). After that, the publishing order is restored; Doctor Dolittle's Garden (1927) is followed by Doctor Dolittle in the Moon (1928) and Doctor Dolittle's Return (1933), ending with Doctor Dolittle and the Secret Lake (1948).
The series has been adapted for film and television many times, for stage twice, and for radio too.
The Story of Mrs Tubbs (1923) and Tommy, Tilly, and Mrs. Tubbs (1936) are picture books aimed at a younger audience than the Doctor Dolittle books. They are about the old woman of the title and her pets, with whom she can speak, and the animals who help her out of trouble.
Porridge Poetry (1924) is the only non-Dolittle work by Lofting still in print. It is a lighthearted, colorfully illustrated book of poems for children.
Noisy Nora (1929) is a cautionary tale about a girl who is a noisy eater. The book is printed as if hand-written, and the many illustrations often merge with the text.
The Twilight of Magic (1930) is aimed at older readers. It is set in an age when magic is dying and science is beginning. This work is the only one of Lofting's books to be illustrated by another person (Lois Lenski).
Victory for the Slain (1942) is Lofting's only work for adults, a single long poem in seven parts about the futility of war; the refrain "In war the only victors are the slain" permeates the poem. It was published only in the United Kingdom.
- The Story of Doctor Dolittle (1920) ISBN 978-0099427322
- The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle (1922) ISBN 978-0099854708
- Doctor Dolittle's Post Office (1923) ISBN 978-0099880400
- The Story of Mrs Tubbs (1923)
- Doctor Dolittle's Circus (1924) ISBN 978-1612035390
- Porridge Poetry (1924)
- Doctor Dolittle's Zoo (1992, mass-market paperback) ISBN 978-0-09-988030-1 (1925, hardcover) ISBN 978-0-397-30009-9
- Doctor Dolittle's Caravan (1992, mass-market paperback) ISBN 978-0-09-985450-0 (1926, hardcover) ISBN 978-0-397-30011-2
- Doctor Dolittle's Garden (1927) ISBN 978-0099880509
- Doctor Dolittle in the Moon (1928) ISBN 978-0099880608/978-1612035369
- Noisy Nora (1929)
- The Twilight of Magic (1930)
- Gub Gub's Book: An Encyclopedia of Food (1932)
- Doctor Dolittle's Return (1933) ISBN 978-0-09-988070-7
- Doctor Dolittle's Birthday Book (1936)
- Tommy, Tilly, and Mrs. Tubbs (1936)
- Victory for the Slain (1942)
- Doctor Dolittle and the Secret Lake (1948) ISBN 978-0099880806
- Doctor Dolittle and the Green Canary (1950) ISBN 978-1406763393
- Doctor Dolittle's Puddleby Adventures (1952) OCLC 1185760 ISBN 978-0-14-030409-1