Theodor Seuss Geisel was born in Springfield, Massachusetts on March 2, 1904. As a boy, Theodor, known as Ted by his family and friends, loved to walk through the Springfield Zoo and bring a pencil and sketch pad to draw animals.
Ted entered Dartmouth College in 1921, which was where he first began using the pseudonym “Seuss” while writing for Jack-O-Lantern, the college humor magazine. After being rejected by publishers 27 times, Dr. Seuss’s first children’s book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street was published in 1937. As Ted was walking down Madison Avenue in New York City and about to throw the book away, he ran into former Dartmouth classmate Mike McClintock, juvenile editor at Vanguard Press who published the book that was based on Ted’s childhood growing up in Springfield.
Ted moved with his wife Helen Palmer Geisel, herself an author, to La Jolla, California in 1948 where he would live for the rest of his life. The Geisels became active members of the community, serving on the boards of the San Diego Fine Arts Museum and the La Jolla Museum of Art, forerunner of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.
After a 1955 book by Rudolf Flesch and an article in Life magazine in 1954 by novelist John Hersey, in which uninspiring, ineffective school primers were said to be a major cause of children not wanting to read, William Spaulding (then director of Houghton Mifflin’s education division) challenged Dr. Seuss to “write me a story that first-graders can’t put down,” while using words chosen from a list of 348. Ted accomplished the task using 236, and in 1957 The Cat in the Hat became a runaway success. This inspired the creation of Beginner Books, a division of Random House co-founded by Ted, his wife Helen, and Phyllis Cerf (the wife of Bennett Cerf, co-founder of Random House). With a focus on publishing books designed to help children learn to read, Beginner Books launched in 1958 with The Cat in the Hat Comes Back and four other titles.
The Dr. Seuss Foundation was founded in 1958, beginning a commitment to philanthropy by Ted, as well as Helen and Audrey (Stone) Dimond whom he married in 1968 after Helen died. All gave generously to organizations in San Diego and elsewhere. Since its inception, the Dr. Seuss Foundation has given more than $300 million.
The Geisels’ giving often aligned with the values espoused in Ted’s books, especially education and literacy. Ted and Audrey gave generously to Ted’s alma mater, Dartmouth College, which named the Geisel School of Medicine in their honor. Likewise, the Geisels gave substantially to the University of California, San Diego. The Geisel Library includes nearly 10,000 Dr. Seuss items from original drawings and manuscripts to college notebooks and letters, and the director of the UC San Diego library holds the Geisel Chair in Librarianship.
Ted’s love of animals and the environment also inspired his work and his family’s giving. The Geisels were contributors to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, one of the global leaders in the study of climate change. Also, several areas of the famous San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park—including the Elephant Odyssey and the Lion Wading Pool—feature the Geisel name. In fact, one of the elephants is named Ingadze, or, in an unlikely translation from the African language SiSwati, Horton—as in the title character from Horton Hears a Who!
The Geisel Family giving reached into health and well-being. Audrey Geisel was a nurse by training and her support of mental and physical health led to the naming of the Geisel Pavilion at Scripps Green Hospital in La Jolla and the Geisel Chair in Biomedical Science at Salk Institute.
Dr. Seuss was not only an author known for inventing creatures with fanciful names and writing in rhyme, but also a talented artist. Ted’s paintings and sculptures are showcased in art galleries across America, and the Geisel Family’s support of the arts continues to have other lasting impacts. A musical stage version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas was first produced by San Diego’s Old Globe Theater in 2007, later ran on Broadway and enjoyed a limited-engagement US tour in 2008. Subsequently, a North American Tour began in the fall of 2010 and has toured ever since.
Ted Geisel won many awards for his various literary and entertainment projects, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for his “special contribution over nearly half a century to the education and enjoyment of America’s children and their parents.” Words that he made up have embedded themselves in pop culture and the English dictionary, and his Grinch character has become the epitome of a grouch. He is the world’s best-selling author of children’s books with 700 million books sold in more than 110 countries in almost 50 languages.
Although Ted died in 1991, his genius and imagination have continued to inspire everyone from four-year-olds to NASA spacecraft engineers. Every year on his March 2nd birthday, he is remembered around the globe as children and adults alike celebrate literacy and learning in his honor.