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‘The lady members of the RCVS’…

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01 March 2015, at 12:00am

BRUCE VIVASH JONES continues his series on the history of the profession with a review of some of the first female members of the Royal College, starting in 1922, and the important contributions they made

THERE is a fascinating document held in the historical records archive at the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.

A folder of 17 lined sheets of paper headed “Lady Members of the RCVS”, it is a carefully written list of 322 names starting with Miss A. Cust (December 1922) and ending with Miss Pamela Johnson in 1951, for each name the date of admission and College is given. It is not known who prepared this list of the first female MsRCVS and why it ends in 1951.

While I did not know Miss Cust, I did know Evelyn Knight (December 1923), the second name on the list, and also Pamela Johnson, the very last name, who was in my year at the Royal Veterinary College.

Following the passing of the antidiscrimination Act in 1920, allowing women equality in the professions, change came slowly.

While the Liverpool school welcomed women, the London school would not accept them until Sir Frederick Hobday became principal and encouraged their enrolment. The Scottish schools were much slower to open their doors. When Aleen Cust died in 1937 there were only about 60 women in the profession.

The most remembered names are the women who became leaders or who used their veterinary training to enhance knowledge. The most obvious are Olga Uvarov (1934), Winnie Brancker (1937) and Joan Joshua (1938).

Uvarov, who became the first woman president of the RCVS, had a great belief in both maintaining the status of the profession and also in continuing education.

Guiding the profession

I worked with Olga and knew her well: she enjoyed her role of guiding the profession (and me in particular). Her achievement was significant and few realised her difficult early life as an orphan: she deserved the honour of being made a Dame of the British Empire (DBE).

Winnie Brancker was distinguished by becoming the first woman president of the BVA, an achievement that was amplified by her presidential year being marked by a major foot-andmouth disease outbreak in which she represented the profession well. In her working life she took an active interest in primates.

She lived to be 96 and even at that age I remember her refusing my help with transport across London to attend a meeting. She was awarded the CBE.

Joan Joshua was a person for whom one can only have the greatest admiration: she could be fearsome when roused, as she was in 1941 when the Ministry of Labour displayed sexist discrimination towards the women of the profession. She demanded equality face-to-face and gained it!

She was an excellent clinician, a good speaker and author and later teacher at the Liverpool school.

She was the first woman to be awarded the FRCVS and also served on RCVS Council for some years.

She declined the post of president on the grounds that she was no longer in practice and felt she could therefore not represent the profession. With Margaret Bentley (1939) she founded the Society of Women Veterinary Surgeons.

I knew her well as both a friend and a colleague, her personal integrity in all dealings was obvious, and while fearsome to some she also had a heart of gold if there was a problem she could help with.

Others also made significant contributions. Probably the most important was Madeleine Sheppard (1933) who, working with J. G. Wright, did most of the clinical work in developing injectable barbiturate use for small animal anaesthesia, which revolutionised small animal surgery. She was also a brilliant student.

Phyllis Peake (1935) was a unique person who had previously qualified SRN as a nurse and made a valuable early contribution to the development of veterinary nursing. Also Connie Ford (1933) who produced a valuable biography of Aleen Cust as well as being awarded the MBE for studies on livestock nutrition.

Myra Bingham (1938) taught parasitology at the RVC and also was the second woman to be awarded the FRCVS; later she co-authored a veterinary toxicology book with her husband.

Barbara Weaver (1949) achieved distinction in the veterinary anaesthesia field and Phyllis Croft (1950) made important studies into canine epilepsy.

Lost in history

However, the majority of women graduates went into general practice and their names and records have become lost to current memory. Almost all put up their plate, started their own practices and soon gained a willing clientele.

I also have some particular memories: Petronel Williams (1935) qualified at a difficult time and being unable to find employment went to live with Aleen Cust, helping with her menagerie of animals and birds.

I knew her when she was elderly: it was fascinating to get a personal view of Cust, a very determined lady with a strict life code, but willing to pass on her knowledge. Petronel had some of Cust’s autographed textbooks, her most treasured possessions.

I also knew Evelyn Knight (1923): she was the second woman to be admitted to the RCVS, just after Cust, and the first to earn a veterinary BSc, from Liverpool University.

She married E. L. Taylor, later the UK’s leading veterinary parasitologist, while she established a successful small animal practice. She impressed me as both a very practical and also empathetic person.

Never to be forgotten was Russell Kelly (1935), a well-connected redoubtable lady who uniquely acted as veterinary adviser to a major feed manufacturer. She lived in Manchester and I have happy memories of her instructing me on the best way to make sloe gin and then introducing me to Mrs Miriam Topham, an even more redoubtable lady who owned Aintree Racecourse!

And finally Betty Sugden (1944), whom I met in Salisbury (now Harare) in Zimbabwe in 1957: she was probably the first British woman veterinary surgeon to practise in Africa.

Apologies for the “name dropping”, but it has a purpose because I believe it is important to not only remember the headline names but also the female foot-soldiers of the profession who conducted themselves so well in their, usually solo, practices to the benefit of both their patients and their communities.