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Remember the path you are following

A reminder about the importance of your contribution to the veterinary profession

19 June 2018, at 12:27pm

Graduation is probably the most important event in a veterinarian’s professional life. Five years of mental exertion and absorption result in them being judged competent in the art and science of veterinary medicine. An additional fillip for British graduates is that at the same time, they become members of the RCVS. Yet, I wonder how many think about the significance of those two sets of letters after their name. 

Unfortunately, there seems to be little effort by the veterinary schools, and even less from the Royal College, to explain the significance of graduation. No one tells you that by becoming a veterinarian, you are not only joining an exclusive group (and accepting the responsibilities that go with that membership), but you have joined a profession with a long and interesting history that can be traced back at least 4,000 years. 

The use of “at least” is necessary because dating can be difficult. Civilisation only really exists when there is a literate society; the culture is then able to leave a record of their activities. For veterinary medicine, the two earliest written surviving records are both dated about 1900 BC. 

One from Egypt, the el-Lahun (or Kahun) papyrus, was written in a particular form of religious cursive hieroglyphs, an indication of its importance. This, the only ancient veterinary papyrus, not only provides our first written record of a veterinary procedure, but is arranged in a particular presentation – exactly the same as that used in the few surviving medical papyri. The priests/healers treated both animals and humans – one medicine existed 4,000 years ago. There is little new in this world! 

The other text, written at about the same time in Mesopotamia (now mostly Iraq), was in a cuneiform script. Emperor Hammurabi produced his famous Legal Code and had the laws inscribed on a large diorite stele. This is now preserved in the Louvre Museum, Paris. 

For those unable to read Akkadian language cuneiform, the word Asos, or Azul, is translated as “healers” or “doctors”, and used for those who treated humans or animals. The laws deal with responsibility (rather like the RCVS), and indicate that, as in Egypt, there was one discipline, with two clinical endpoints – one medicine again. 

In those ancient times there were individuals who were recognised as specialising in veterinary work. By today’s standards, their learning was limited, but some of them must have been reasoning and starting to build a knowledge base. Not a veterinary profession, but a beginning.

In both Egypt and Mesopotamia, cleanliness and hygiene were understood, and in Babylonia there was a recognition that isolation of a sick animal or person was advisable; they did not understand contagion, but they were taking the correct action. 

What is learned at veterinary school is the endpoint of a path that can be traced back four millennia – it has not been a smooth or easy journey, and it was not until 1761 that the first veterinary school was established in Europe, in Lyon, France, by Claude Bourgelat. 

Britain, as usual, did not follow the pattern of other European countries who all sent students, mostly government sponsored, to learn from Bourgelat and then return home to start national veterinary schools. We waited until 1791 and then opened a private school, at Camden Town, with no government support. 

When you enter the profession, you start to add your own contribution to the treasury of veterinary knowledge, by every action that you take as a veterinarian. You may never publish a paper or speak at a meeting, but every animal you see, diagnose, treat or discuss with a colleague forms part of the records of the profession. Never forget that what you did yesterday is history; your case notes in 50 years’ time may provide the evidence for… who knows? But the record you left is there. 

I have used the word “veterinarian”; I like it as, not only is it less cumbersome than “veterinary surgeon”, it is, in fact, our original name, first used by Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682), a medical man and renowned polymath. Then in 1755, Samuel Johnson ensured its place in the English language by including it in his famous dictionary. When the Camden Town College began to produce its “graduates”, the term veterinary surgeon came into common usage – probably because the “veterinarian” word had little public recognition, whereas the word “surgeon” was recognised and added status. 

Remember also our first journal, published in 1828, was named The Veterinarian. It was a long way from the hieroglyphs and cuneiform texts where our written history began, but the message – to advance and promote animal health and welfare – has always been the same. Remember the path you are following, and where it started.