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Only a few fellows...

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01 July 2015, at 12:00am

BRUCE VIVASH JONES continues his series on the history of the profession with a review of some of the relatively small number of veterinary surgeons who have been elected Fellows of the Royal Society

ELECTION for Fellowship of the Royal Society is the highest honour that can be bestowed on British and Commonwealth scientists.

Selection is by a peer-review process based on excellence in science. The honour is rarely bestowed and therefore it is of interest to look back to the 20th century to the nine members of the veterinary profession who received that accolade – and, most surprisingly, one who did not.

To give it its full name, the Royal Society for Improving Natural Knowledge grew out of a group of men who, in the 1640s, discussed “the new philosophy of promoting knowledge of the natural world through observation and experiment” – what we today call “science”.

Founded in 1660 with Robert Hooke as its “curator of experiments”, it received its first Royal Charter from King Charles II in 1662 and now has some 1,600 Fellows. In its early days it adopted “Nullius in verba” as its motto, translated as “take nobody’s word for it” – a very perceptive summary of the objectives of any dedicated scientist.

Many of the names of the nine veterinary recipients of the honour are either little known now or long forgotten. But it is of interest to remember them because of their contribution to science, which in every case grew out of their veterinary background.

The first veterinary surgeon to be elected FRS was Edward Nettleship, an 1867 London graduate who also gained medical status in the same year and MRCS in 1868. He soon moved to human medicine and became a specialist ophthalmic surgeon, noted lecturer and author as well as successfully operating on Prime Minister Gladstone in 1894 for cataract.

He was also active in dermatology and fascinated by genealogy and inherited disease in animals and man, making a notable study on congenital night blindness where he traced the descendants of a man born in 1637 through 10 generations. He was elected FRS in 1912 in recognition of his work with disease pedigrees.

It was to be 45 years before Emmanuel Cyprian Amoroso was to be similarly honoured. Initially medically qualified, his work was in physiology, in particular related to the placenta. He was elected an honorary associate of the RCVS in 1959.

As professor of physiology to many generations of students at the Royal Veterinary College, he did outstanding work on placentation in many species of animals. Students still remember his immaculate and faultless use of the English language: while we may not have understood all he said, he always expressed it beautifully! He was elected FRS in 1957.

R. R. A. Coombs qualified from the Edinburgh school and in 1944 joined the staff of Weybridge Laboratories to co-operate in developing a glanders diagnostic test (this was during the 1939-45 war with a concern about usage of biological weapons).

The test was based on conglutination complement absorption: it proved to be the starting point of a life in immunology culminating in being appointed Quick Professor of Immunology at Cambridge in 1966.

Coombs told of sitting in an ill-lit, dirty, cold, post-war train wrestling with the problem of the immunological reaction that was taking place when non-compatible blood types were used.

As he recounted, “Suddenly I could see the globulin antibody attached to the red cells and realised…” Hurrying from the train to his laboratory he tested his idea, and the “Coombs Test” was created, to soon be adopted worldwide by virtually every haematology laboratory and blood transfusion service. Coombs gained international recognition and was elected FRS in 1965.

L. E. A. Rowson qualified in 1938 from the Royal Veterinary College. In 1942 he became director of the first British artificial insemination centre for cattle breeding at Cambridge and became the prime mover for its national usage.

Later, at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) Unit of Reproductive Physiology and Biochemistry he developed techniques for the freezing and storing of bull semen at very low temperatures. In the 1970s, his work on embryo transfer in sheep and cattle resulted in effective methods for collection and transfer of embryos by non-surgical means.

The birth of the first calf after transfer of a deep frozen embryo was a landmark in 1973 with the technique quickly becoming commercially available. Rowson was described as a brilliant surgeon and is regarded as the father of embryo transfer in farm animals. He was elected FRS in 1973.

Sir Barry Cross studied at the Royal Veterinary College, coming under the influence of E. C. Amoroso (and also S. J. Folley and H. Rosenberg). This caused him to later write, “Reproduction, lactation endocrinology and neurology … nothing supplanted these subjects in my affections.”

On qualification he entered St John’s College, Cambridge, to read physiology and worked on pituitary control. Cross prospered at Cambridge and developed a reputation for high academic standards.

After 16 years he moved to Bristol as professor of anatomy in the medical school. The appointment of “a vet” to a medical chair provoked another anatomist to remark, “I understand if you get sick in Bristol nowadays you are shot!” He built a strong neuroscience team focusing on the electrical activity of neurosecretary cells in the hypothalamus.

Returning to Cambridge as director of the ARC Institute of Animal Physiology in 1974, Cross fostered neuroendocrinological research which had wide ramifications in studying “the needs of livestock animals in respect of food, water, warmth, light, sex, etc.”. Tim Rowson’s ARC Unit also joined the Cambridge Institute.

Cross worked through the difficult years of the 1970s with budget cuts and personal and institutional attacks from animal liberationists and the tabloid press.

He fought all these and introduced changes, eventually creating the Institute of Animal Physiology and Genetics Research in 1986 which he headed until retirement in 1989. He had been elected FRS in 1975 and was knighted in 1989.

  • Next time we will look at the remaining four 20th century veterinary FsRS and the one who was not.