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Who made our profession?

We should recognise the individuals who have carved the veterinary profession as we know it

10 December 2019, at 9:00am

Our Royal College is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year. Established by Charter on 8 March 1844, the objective was to create a professional body of those trained in veterinary medicine and to govern them with both educational and ethical standards to serve the needs of both animals and the public.

The question in the title echoes the succinct words of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82): “There is properly no history; only biography.” Therefore, as a profession, we should recognise the individuals who have enabled the creation of our present working environment.

The story begins when Granville Penn, a member of the Odiham Agricultural Society, and philanthropist, saw the need for proper veterinary education. In 1789, he happened to meet Charles Vial de Saint Bel, a French veterinary graduate who wanted to open a school in England. Granville soon drafted a plan with the objectives of creating both “scientific veterinary education” and a “veterinary profession”.

It came to fruition in 1791 with the opening of the London College, but Charles Vial de Saint Bel died in 1793 and his successor had little interest in founding a profession. It took Thomas Mayer and Thomas Walton Mayer, a veterinary father and son, to determine the way forward. They overcame opposition, drafted a petition and obtained the Royal Charter in 1844.

This Charter enabled the RCVS to be established and was designed to “afford us the same privileges and exemptions which other professional bodies possess”. A president, officers and a system to oversee new entrants were created. But it did not confer legal powers to protect the title “veterinary surgeon”. A Bill had to be presented to Parliament to confirm the Charter and enforce legislation.

In 1875, the RCVS Council elected Sir Francis Wellington John Fitzwygram (later both a Major General and a baronet) as president. Because of his status he possessed influence – he could open doors and twist arms with elegance and grace. Almost single-handedly, he drew up a supplementary charter to protect the veterinary name, create a registrar and maintain a register of members from both the London and Edinburgh colleges. It was granted in 1876. Now, the Act of Parliament was needed. He passed the baton. The baton was taken by his colleague George Fleming, elected RCVS President in 1880. At once he drafted a Bill to obtain protection of the veterinary surgeon title. By incredible persistence, and funded by his own money, he was able to get the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1881 entered on to the Statute Book. The profession was now legalised and the members listed in the RCVS Register.

These two men, Francis Wellington John Fitzwygram and George Fleming, had saved the profession. They were known as “Fitzwygram the Charter and Fleming the Act”.

Following the First World War, the profession fell to a low ebb: horses were being replaced by motor vehicles, farming was in a desperate situation and veterinary work was in little demand. The veterinary schools were underfunded and research was negligible.

In 1938, the Loveday Committee was tasked to report on veterinary education. Recalled in 1943 to look into wartime food shortages, the committee now included Reginald Wooldridge, who was able to ensure that the final report recommended veterinary schools to be in the university system and receive funding to encourage research. These recommendations were incorporated into the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1948, and veterinary colleges were also created at Bristol and Cambridge universities (adding to those in London, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Liverpool). This was almost solely due to Reginald Wooldridge, who also founded the Animal Health Trust.

There can be little doubt that without the initiative of the Mayers, Fitzwygram, Fleming and Wooldridge, we would not have the veterinary profession that we have today. The Mayers had the initiative and perseverance to start the process; Fitzwygram and Fleming were the key men who put into place the legislative structure and Wooldridge had the foresight and drive to bring veterinary medicine into a university and research-focused environment.

Two other people showed the direction veterinary medicine would take: Aleen Cust, who in the late 1800s was the first British woman veterinarian, and Brian Singleton, who was leader in the founding of the BSAVA in 1957.

At the time of both of these events, no one could foresee the consequences. Today, veterinary student intake borders on 80 percent female and small animal work dominates all other veterinary activity. Singleton also went on to lead the creation of the World Small Animal Veterinary Association in 1959 – now with more than 200,000 members in its 110 member associations.

Mayer, Fitzwygram, Fleming, Wooldridge, Cust and Singleton. Remember these six names; they made today’s profession. We can be sure of only one thing for the veterinary future: veterinary medicine changes as the needs of human society alter. Maybe the forerunners of the next change have already shown themselves. It will not always be as it is today.