College Days

College Days

There is, or used to be, a station on London Underground called Camden Town which I came to know extremely well. For 4½ years I would alight there five, sometimes six days a week. I would cross the road and walk down College Road until I reached an ugly brick building. This was the Royal Veterinary College whose spartan exterior was home to some of the luckiest students in the country. It may not have seemed so at the time, but looking back I realise that we were inundated with so much information and facts that if we stayed the course and passed the frequent exams, we emerged very much older and with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Horse, Cow, Sheep, Dog, Cat and Chicken. Then we were permitted to spend a final year of practical, clinical and surgical teaching at the Field Station at Streatley-On-Thames.

Having walked the bleak length of College Road, whose pavements were covered in wind swept waves of ash from the many factory chimneys, I was daily rewarded by the warmth, friendliness, and sense of purpose of the college. At that time it was self-governing and even set its own exam papers and vivas for the many exams which came at you like the hurdles in a steeplechase. Fail one and you stayed back to take it again so that some took as much as eight years to pass the basic five year course.

This was better than school, for you could see a purpose, a reason, in every fact you learned. The first text book was “Animal Husbandry”, by a vet named Kirk, which solved the mystery of all the harness of the horse or perhaps how to down a cow using only a rope, according to a man named Reuff. A veritable bible. Even Chemistry became Biochemistry and encompassed Forensic Chemistry taught by the leading Forensic Chemist in the country. But the main subject was the two year course on Anatomy with the great Professor McCunn. Two years to learn to identify every single bone, muscle, blood vessel and nerve in the five species. About three afternoons a week were spent in the vast anatomy hall. Each student was allotted a pony cadaver for dissection and these were kept in tanks of formaldehyde, so that on entering the hall your throat was gripped by the fumes, but this was the least of your worries. I recall only two traditions at the college; one was that you did not clap to show approval, you stamped your feet. The other was that people at one end of the anatomy hall surreptitiously hurled pieces of meat at those at the other end, so it paid to keep your head down.

Further years took us through Histology, Pathology, Bacteriology and Pharmacy, where we met a wonderful eccentric array of characters who lectured us, and we received good value. Most of us were ex-service and found it harder to retain facts than the ex-schoolboys; but lecturers such as Prof. Greatorex who taught the diseases of the horse, a Mr.Daykin on pharmacy, rose above subjects which could have been boring. For sheer showmanship you could not beat Prof. Amoroso who started his lecture on Physiology as he walked in the door and finished as he walked out. He was famous for wearing two pairs of spectacles, one perched precariously over the other. His lecture on the placentas of the five species remains with me today. But once we had mastered all these background, yet essential, subjects and passed the relevant exams, maybe at the second or even third attempt, we were welcomed to the final, clinical, year where it all came together.

This was held at the field station at Streatley-On-Thames, a beautiful location and, two years married by now, we bought an ancient caravan from a previous student and I settled down to master Clinical Medicine and Surgery. This caravan was sited in the grounds of a local pub, but as we did not patronise said pub, no money, and I mean literally no money, we were asked to move our caravan. So we moved to a delightful spot in the grounds of a Country House Hotel. It was an idyllic time, or would have been had we not all had the dreaded Finals hanging over us. The staff, from Professors down to technicians made it so pleasant and I shall be forever grateful. My wife together with our first dog, a Dachshund called Dandy, would walk the mile to the shops in Goring through beautiful countryside and, joyously, I passed my Finals at first attempt. Despite our penurious poverty we were sad to leave. At last I was deemed fit to be let loose on the, no doubt anxious, world of veterinary practice. I have a photo of six of us students posing around a horse, two professors, one future head of the Army Veterinary Service, one American drop-out and two General Practitioners; and of these who do I rate the most? why the GP’s of course!

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This article was written by
Ken Watson

Ken Watson's career as a vet started many moons ago, after he'd attended Royal Veterinary College at Camden Town. Ken came to work at Sidmouth in 1953 at Steele & Wardrop (now Ikin & Oxenham). Subsequently Ken set up his own practice at Plymouth in 1961 before retiring in 1992. His pieces graphically map out the changes that have taken place in the veterinary business over the years and also allow great insight into human behaviour.