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Remembering the Animal Health Trust

The profession should remember the valuable legacy of the Animal Health Trust and in particular two men who played an important role in advancing the British veterinary profession

28 April 2021, at 9:00am

The sudden demise last year of the Animal Health Trust was a shock, it had been a part of British veterinary life since 1946. We should not let it pass without remembering what the Trust was and what it achieved.

Dr Walter Reginald Wooldridge

Quite simply, it was all due to Dr Walter Reginald Wooldridge (1900 to 1966). In 1924, when the President of the RCVS handed him his MRCVS diploma and asked how he envisaged his career, Wooldridge answered that he intended to devote himself to research. This produced the retort “Oh, there is no future in veterinary research”. Wooldridge was left aghast by the remark: it shaped his life.

After a short time in practice, he attended Cambridge University, gained an MSc followed by a PhD in 1928 on bacterial enzymes, then he joined the staff at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. His career began to develop: President of the Veterinary Research Club in 1931, active in the National Veterinary Medical Association (NVMA; now the BVA) becoming President in 1941, and re-elected for the 1942 to 1945 war years. During this time, he served on the Loveday Committee on Veterinary Education and was the key influencer in the recommendation that veterinary schools should be part of the university system, allowing for state funding for research – enacted in the 1948 Veterinary Surgeons Act. These were the years in which his views crystallised; he began to develop a long-term veterinary policy plan.

In 1942, the darkest year of the war, he hosted a luncheon at the London Mansion House to launch the Veterinary Educational Trust with the aim “the advancement of veterinary research, science and practice”. He had no money, but the response was good and two senior and one junior research fellows were funded.

By 1946, with the end of the war Wooldridge could really get to work. His vision had expanded, changing names to the Animal Health Trust (AHT) – but keeping his educational objective – he set about opening research stations – for horses, dogs and cats, poultry and farm livestock. He was the main instigator in expanding the work of the Trust. But it was always a difficult financial road that he travelled.

The Poultry Research Centre, headed by Dr Bob Gordon, became one of the largest and best-known avian pathology institutes in the world and in 1954 it was taken under the wing of the Agricultural Research Council. Wooldridge had achieved an objective. The Farm Livestock Centre faced serious funding difficulties and was forced to close; needs had changed as research was being government funded in their own laboratories and universities. This left the equine and small animal centres which were eventually consolidated on one site at Newmarket.

Usually known as “Reg”, Wooldridge was well recognised in his lifetime: President of NVMA (BVA) and the RCVS; in the Second World War he was appointed Director of Veterinary Services for the Air Raid Precautions Centre; in 1952 he was elected to the Senate of London University Faculty of Science; in 1955 he was appointed to the UK Steering Committee of the World Health Organization; from 1949 to 62 he was a member of Committee of the World Veterinary Association (WVA) and Honorary Secretary of the 1959 WVA London Congress; Governor of Birkbeck, London School of Hygiene, Royal Veterinary, National Food Technology and Wye Agricultural Colleges. He received many awards and honorary degrees but was particularly proud when Her Majesty the Queen became the Patron of the AHT in 1959.

The death of Wooldridge in 1966 at the relatively early age of sixty-six was unexpected. I knew him, he was of great help to me in my early days in trying to find a post in research. Many years later I was able to help with the Trust’s publications and could see how he balanced the financial appetites of his research stations with the struggle to keep a constant cash flow, and also how he engendered loyalty in all his senior staff. He had a firm belief in his own ideas and viewpoints, had a great love of his profession and a driving ambition to establish a strong physical and financial basis for veterinary research. Above all, he had a formidable determination and boundless enthusiasm for his projects. He was a good speaker with a natural gift for public relations and an ability to stride over obstacles, invariably with success and frequently some incredible “cheek” that few others could have got away with. I would suggest that he did more for the veterinary profession than any other individual in the 20th century. While the Animal Health Trust was his obvious legacy, his efforts with the Loveday Committee enabled British veterinary medicine to develop alongside the other sciences.

Dr William Brian Singleton

There have been several other directors of the Trust following Wooldridge, but one of them needs mention – Dr William Brian Singleton (1923-2018). He served as President of the RCVS and, uniquely, was elected as President of two specialist veterinary associations – BSAVA and BEVA, and President of the WSAVA as well as leading a notable veterinary life, in particular as a small animal orthopaedic surgeon, and recipient of many awards and honours.

In 1954, having sold his practice in Kensington, Singleton was invited by John Hodgman, Director of the AHT Canine Centre, to join and establish a Surgical Unit. He then developed his skills and began a referral practice. In 1956 Wooldridge, in both his AHT and WVA roles, suggested that Hodgman and Singleton form a national small animal association as a lead for Britain to aid formation of a world association: and so BSAVA and WSAVA were formed, with Singleton being the main motivator.

Returning to practice in 1957, in partnership with Cecil Erskine Woodrow, he built his own surgical unit. In 1977 having “retired”, he was offered the post of Director of the Trust. There were 130 staff, two research stations, a London office and serious organisational and financial problems. With radical restructuring in the 11 years up to his retirement, at age 65, the Trust was revitalised. Amongst other activities Singleton established a virology unit (later designated a WHO reference laboratory), set up equine influenza vaccine production and oversaw a similar project in India. A blood-typing unit was created for thoroughbred foals, essential for keeping the integrity of the Stud Book. At the same time, he re-established the funding base and stabilised the Trust’s finances.

Wooldridge obviously was an influence on Singleton, they shared a belief in the objectives of the Trust, based on working with and helping to develop young people to advance their research careers in veterinary science. They shared a belief – if you want something in life you go for it and failure should never enter your mind. They both were elected President of the RCVS, received the Fellowship award, received honorary Doctorates of Veterinary Medicine, were awarded the Dalrymple-Champneys Cup, and at the national level both were awarded a CBE. Additionally, Singleton became President of BSAVA and WSAVA, now with memberships exceeding 10,000 and 200,000 respectively, and the WSAVA active in 113 countries.