20 Surprising Facts About Dr. Seuss
Bennett Cerf, the co-founder of publishing giant Random House, used to say that of all the authors who had ever written for his esteemed company—a list that included William Faulkner, Eugene O’Neill, and Sinclair Lews—there was only one "genius." "His name," Cerf declared, "is Ted Geisel."
A native of Springfield, Massachusetts, Theodor Seuss Geisel—who you probably know better by his pen name, Doctor Seuss—was born on March 2, 1904. To celebrate what would have been his 115th birthday, we’ve rounded up some amazing facts about Geisel’s life, his art, and his unforgettable characters.
1. Theodor Geisel's father worked with beer. And zoo animals.
Dr. Seuss’s dad had an interesting career path. Born in 1879, Theodor Robert Geisel was a brewmaster and a competitive marksman of international renown. When Prohibition went into effect in 1920, Geisel entered a new line of work and became the superintendent of Forest Park in Springfield, Massachusetts. Among his responsibilities, the elder Geisel oversaw the park’s onsite zoo. “That zoo,” his famous son later remarked, “is where I learned whatever I know about animals.”
2. Teddy Roosevelt scarred Geisel for life.
Geisel was a Boy Scout, and in this capacity he sold U.S. war bonds. Since he was one of the 10 best bond sellers in his Boy Scout troop, he and his entire family were invited to attend a special ceremony that was held on May 2, 1918. There, Geisel was going to receive a medal from former president Theodore Roosevelt. But the event organizers accidentally gave Teddy nine medals instead of 10 ... and Roosevelt’s supply ran out right before Geisel (who’d been sitting on stage with the other boys) was supposed to receive his.
Not realizing that he had been shorted one medal, Roosevelt looked at Geisel and asked “What is this little boy doing here?” Rather than explain that there had been a mix-up, a Scoutmaster instead whisked a humiliated Geisel off the stage. Geisel attributed his lifelong fear of public speaking to this embarrassing incident.
3. Dr. Seuss dabbled in taxidermy.
Geisel created weird, sculpted busts of fictional beasts—like the Mulberry Street unicorn and a “carbonic walrus”—out of body parts from exotic animals that had passed away at his father’s zoo. He called it “Unorthodox Taxidermy.”
4. “Seuss” was originally pronounced “Soice.”
The “Dr. Seuss” alias evolved from a pseudonym that Geisel came up with at Dartmouth College, his undergraduate alma mater. Not coincidentally, Seuss was also the maiden name of Geisel's mother, Henrietta. In its traditional pronunciation, Seuss rhymes with voice. But as the author’s fame grew, people started mispronouncing it.
Geisel’s friend, Alexander Liang, responded by writing a poem: “You’re wrong as the deuce / And you shouldn’t rejoice / If you’re calling him Seuss / He pronounces it Soice.”
5. Geisel named a major character in his first book after his editor's son.
Geisel’s debut children’s book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was released in 1937. Editor Marshall "Mike" McClintock at Vanguard Press accepted the manuscript after anywhere from 20 to 43 other publishers rejected it. (Geisel’s accounts of his many rejections don’t provide us with a consistent number.) McClintock knew the budding children's author from their days at Dartmouth. Geisel, to show his gratitude, named the book’s main character after McClintock's son, Marco.
6. One of Dr. Seuss's rejected story ideas was about Mount Everest.
Before Geisel began working on The Cat in the Hat, he wanted to write a children’s book about climbing Mount Everest in subzero temperatures. He hoped that it would be a thrilling page-turner for kids—and the antithesis of the Dick and Jane texts most schoolchildren were forced to read in those days. But upon pitching the idea to a publisher, Geisel was told that he couldn’t use the words Everest, scaling, peaks, or degrees, because young readers wouldn't recognize or understand them.
7. Geisel had a successful advertising career.
Both before and after he began publishing children's books, Geisel worked in advertising. Ford, Holly Sugar, and General Electric all employed Geisel’s artistic talents in print ads. In 1928, the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey put him on their payroll; Geisel earned $12,000 a year to draw cartoons and posters for Flit, a Standard Oil-owned insecticide brand. During that time, the slogan he devised—“Quick, Henry, the Flit!”—became culturally iconic. Geisel worked with the company until 1941.
8. Geisel worked with Chuck Jones and Ray Harryhausen during World War II.
During World War II, Geisel joined forces with two of the biggest names in animation: Chuck Jones and Ray Harryhausen. Jones—who created such iconic Looney Tunes characters as Marvin the Martian, Pepé Le Pew, Wile E. Coyote, and the Road Runner—worked with Geisel during the war to create dozens of animated shorts for America’s armed forces. A recurring character in their cartoons was Private Snafu, who helped teach soldiers about things like mine field procedures, good hygiene, and what to do with classified information.
Snafu's physical appearance was based on a model co-designed by sculptor Ray Harryhausen (under Geisel’s supervision). Harryhausen quickly emerged as a pioneer in the field of stop-motion animation; Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and One Million Years B.C. (1966) are among his best-known movies.
9. In the 1930s, Geisel illustrated “boner” books.
Relax, people: Boner means mistake or blunder (at least it did back when these books came out). Published by Viking Press in 1931, Boners was a short collection of hilariously inaccurate statements made by schoolchildren. (“The people of Moscow are called Mosquitoes,” surmised one kid.) Geisel was hired to draw original cartoons to match the one-liners. Viking went on to release three sequels, including More Boners, which Geisel also illustrated. They were eventually packaged into one volume, The Pocket Book of Boners.
10. Yertle the Turtle is a stand-in for Hitler.
“Kids gag at having morals crammed down their throats,” Geisel told The Saturday Evening Post in 1965. “But there is a moral inherent in any damn thing you write that has a dramatic point ... Still I never set out to prove a point—except for Yertle the Turtle, a deliberate parable of the life of Hitler.” While developing the story, the author even considered giving Yertle a mustache.
11. A line about Lake Erie was cut from The Lorax many years after its original publication.
Lake Erie was a national punchline when The Lorax was first published in 1971. Runaway phosphorous pollution had set off massive algal blooms and dead fish were washing ashore in frightening numbers. In early editions of The Lorax, the title character tells the villainous Once-ler that he’s evicting the native humming fish from a polluted pond. “I hear things are just as bad up in Lake Erie,” The Lorax added.
Fifteen years later, Geisel was contacted by Rosanne Fortner, an environmental education coordinator at The Ohio State University. She informed the author that after The Lorax’s publication, cleanup efforts had done wonders for the lake. At her request, Geisel removed all references to Lake Erie in later printings of the book.
12. Geisel put NSFW pictures in book manuscripts—just to make sure his editors were paying attention.
A draft of the alphabet primer Dr. Seuss’ ABC that Geisel sent to his editor at Random House had a picture of a naked woman next to the letter “X.” The text that accompanied the image read: "Big X, little x. X,X,X / Someday, kiddies, you will learn about SEX.” Geisel knew full well that Random House would never include that sort of verse in a children’s book. He reportedly only put it in the draft to keep his bosses on their toes.
13. Richard Nixon was the target of a Seussian parody.
Geisel wasn't a fan of Richard Nixon. In the summer of 1974, with Nixon facing almost certain impeachment over the Watergate scandal, the writer sent the The Washington Post a parody of his beloved story, Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now! Its amended title? Richard M. Nixon, Will You Please Go Now!
The full version, which was published by the newspaper on July 30, implored the president to resign. "The time has come, the time is now,” it read. “Just go. Go. Go! I don’t care how. You can go by foot. You can go by cow. Richard M. Nixon, Will You Please Go Now!”
14. A dinosaur footprint was one of his most cherished possessions.
One of Geisel's most beloved possessions was a fossilized dinosaur footprint that had been gifted to him by his father. Geisel made the track the centerpiece of the rock garden at his home in La Jolla, California. The footprint, which measured approximately 16 inches in length and and 11 inches in width, came from a Massachusetts shale pit and was estimated to be about 150 million years old. Geisel was awed by its age, and by the sheer size of its prehistoric maker. “It keeps me from getting conceited,” he once said. “Whenever I think I’m pretty good, I just go out and look at it.”
Since Geisel adored practical jokes, some of his house guests assumed the fossil was fake. “Half the people I show it to think I made it myself,” he admitted.
15. Dr. Seuss may have invented the word nerd.
“Someone who once would be called a dip or square is now, regrettably, called a nerd,” Newsweek reported in an October 8, 1951 story about teenager slang. This is the oldest published instance of the term nerd being used in that context. But it’s not the first time nerd appeared in print.
One year earlier, Dr. Seuss's If I Ran the Zoo arrived in bookstores. The narrator of the children’s classic vows to wrangle “A Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seer-Sucker, too.” Given that timeline of events, a few cultural commentators suspect that nerd was first coined by Geisel. When he was asked about its origins in 1987, Geisel said he’d never encountered the word before using it. “Perhaps it comes from Nerdfogel’ which I’m sure you know all about,” he joked.
16. Geisel waxed poetic about popovers during a commencement speech.
Public speaking may not have been Geisel's forte, but it came with the territory of being one of the world's most successful authors. In 1977, Geisel summoned the courage to say a few words to Lake Forest College's graduating class. Right after the school’s president emeritus presented him with an honorary degree, Geisel took the podium and treated everyone to an original—and uniquely inspirational—poem called “My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers.”
17. Dartmouth College regularly serves green eggs and ham in Geisel's honor.
The Dartmouth Outing Club, which organizes outdoor treks and events for students at the Ivy League school, regularly pays tribute to Dr. Seuss by serving up green eggs and ham to freshmen who participate in some of their outdoor excursions.
18. It took Geisel three months to devise an ending for How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
In coming up with an ending for How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, Geisel wanted a happy resolution that was both sincere and sentimental but not overly theological. “I got hung up on how to get the Grinch out of the mess,” Geisel said. “I got into a situation where I sounded like a second-rate preacher or some bible thumper.”
After a full three months of wrestling with the problem and burning through “thousands of religious choices,” he chose to end the book with the wholesome image of the Grinch and the Whos seated around a dinner table, merrily eating Roast Beast.
19. A few of Dr. Seuss's books have been translated into Latin.
Terence and Jennifer Tunberg are a husband and wife duo who teach classics at the University of Kentucky. Together, they created Latin translations of three popular Dr. Seuss books. Published in 1998, their edition of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! was titled Quomodo Invidiosulus Nomine Grinchus Christi Natalem Abrogaverit. Then came Cattus Petasatus, the Tunbergs’ take on The Cat in the Hat. Finally, they released Virent Ova! Viret Perna!!, which is better known to readers as Green Eggs and Ham.
20. There’s a Dr. Seuss sculpture garden in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Since opening to the public in 2002, the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden in Geisel's hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts has welcomed more than 3 million visitors. The garden is populated by bronze statues of characters like the Lorax, the Grinch, Horton the Elephant, and the Cat in the Hat. The garden is just steps from yet another Geisel attraction: The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum.