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A memorable start to an enjoyable career...

by
01 December 2016, at 12:00am

Dr David Williams reminisces about his first contacts with the profession, his interview, complete with a glass of sherry, at Cambridge, and how things have changed since the early 1980s.

SO IT’S DECEMBER. A time I really look forward to each year. Not Christmas you understand. Not even the feast day of St John the Evangelist two days later.

Who wants or needs a big feast just after the turkey and trimmings, but as it’s the celebration of my college’s saint, we have to enjoy a sizeable repast. No – not even that! Just about three weeks before that I have the sheer delight of interviewing potential vets for a chance to study in Cambridge, to have a place at St John’s.

What a great opportunity – the same one I was given a bit more than 25 years ago. But it’s a bit different from the time I was interviewed in 1980. I was only asked one question: “Would you like sweet, medium or ... or ... or dry sherry?”

Well I really wanted sweet, but I knew that the answer must be a more grown- up, “Dry please.” It must have been the right answer, given that I got in!

Dr Green, my interviewer, now sadly deceased, poured himself a glass as well, relaxed back in his seat and said, “Tell us about yourself.”

Well, those who know me will be aware that when I get started it’s difficult to stop me. I told him of my interest in animal disease and the science behind it, as I thought that sounded the sort of thing that might get me in. I revelled in my work with the parasitologist Dr Crompton on the acanthocephalan worm Moliniformis dubius and its cockroach host. It had the interesting effect of making the insects do a mating display in front of birds that would then eat their prey, thus allowing the worm to fulfil its life-cycle through the roach and the bird.

Truth be told that was all Crompton’s work and my only contribution was finding out that the difference in pH of the guts of different cockroach species defined which insects could be infected by the worm. What relevance had that to veterinary medicine you might ask, but it sounded impressive and only took a month or so one summer holiday.

My visit to Professor Atanasiu at the Pasteur Institute in Paris in 1979 might have been a bit more appropriate to discuss in a veterinary interview. I went to investigate Atanasiu’s work developing new rabies vaccines in mammalian cells rather than hen eggs which sounds now like it must have been a millennium ago. 

But I spent most of my time dissecting the brains of dogs which had bitten people, working out with immunochemistry of their hippocampus whether they had rabies or not ... that and visiting art galleries which the professor thought was quite as important as gaining a scientific education!

Getting back to the interview, I added a few words on my interest in how my Christian faith should influence my work caring for animals and so managed to fill up 20 or so minutes before the other interviewer, my tutor-to-be Dr Leake, managed to get a word in edgeways and tell me, “That will be all, thank you.”

Years later I ended up interviewing alongside John Leake and reminded him of my interview. “Yes,” he replied, “it was almost impossible to shut you up!” He told me anyway that by that time at the end of the morning Dr Green was nearly asleep after a sherry per interview, so my continual jabbering probably tipped him over the edge into the land of slumber.

Getting to know each other

These days, of course, we aren’t allowed to ply students with alcohol at interview nor fall asleep during our meetings with them. But while many vet schools employ a speed-dating style of interview with a few minutes at each station, here in Cambridge, certainly at St John’s, we do prefer a longer opportunity to get to know the students and find out what makes them tick.

The one thing I don’t ask, though, is why they want to be a vet in the first place. I’m not really sure I would have been able to answer that question myself when I was being interviewed. As with many of the applicants we have coming for interview, I was five or six when I first remember being attracted to the profession.

Brian Jordan, in his practice in the middle of Cambridge, solved my guinea pig’s mange with some apparent wonder drug with just a couple of applications and perhaps more importantly showed such a kind, caring attitude, even to a little boy and his scabby cavy, that I was hooked into the veterinary world from that moment onward.

Gamma benzene hexachloride worked wonders on Trixacarus cavae in the early 1970s and its potential neuro-toxicity to guinea pigs and small children hadn’t been recognised by then, so all was well in the world!

Next it was Miss Lloyd, my first junior school teacher, who realised my veterinary passion at the age of seven. Her uncle had just died and she gave me his nine volumes of Wortley Axe’s The Horse in Disease and Health published in 1906. Glorious in its sumptuous green leather binding and with copious illustrations throughout, this book captivated me – I still have it on my shelves.

With everything from detailed anatomy through to descriptions of diseases such as the zoonotic glanders – what more could a young boy want?

Wonderful artefacts

My mother took me to see a friend of a friend, Dr (now Professor) Ian Silver, in his room in the veterinary anatomy department in Cambridge. He took me around the museum with its wonderful skeletons and formalin-preserved dissections, but what entranced me was his Victorian roll-top desk. Well not so much the desk as what he had in it.

Pulling out one of the tiny drawers he revealed a rat and her pups. She wasn’t doing very well in the lab, he said, so he had transferred her to his office better to be able to look after her there. Not something one would ever think of doing now, of course, but again an act that made me feel that was just the sort of thing I wanted to spend my life doing.

So looking back at what I have written over the last couple of paragraphs it was all people, rather than primarily animals, who directed me to the veterinary profession. And so now I ask myself if I am doing the same for the youngsters I know.

Each of my three children is doing something quite different from the veterinary life I lead and that certainly seems to be the case with other vets I know too. When I qualified, there were a fair few classmates whose parents were vets, but now there are very few. My kids tell me that while I really seem to enjoy my work, they think I labour far too hard for far too little reward, at least financially.

Is that why we seem to be putting the boys off applying more generally, I wonder? But further gender-related musings might have to wait for a future perambulation I think, as I’ve just about reached my word limit for this month.

Happy Christmas!