I suppose that if you imagine a modern day vet, a picture comes to mind of a smartly kitted type in a state-of-the-art surgery or visiting a modern farm. It was a different story in the 1950-80’s. It was a time of great change, of post war initiative and vigour. Most students were ex-servicemen and we were determined to build a better world, and to do this we took little heed of bureaucrats. In the 50-70’s we cleared the country’s cattle of TB from a level of infection far, far worse than anything seen today. But, then, there were fewer badgers!
We spent little time in the surgery and motored many miles on the country lanes or city streets. Personally I never wore a white coat in surgery as I found it upset my patients and I look upon the Sat-Nav inspired navigation of modern youth with amusement as they try to find their way. I would set off with the terse advice, “Go past Tucker’s farm, right at the crossroads, and it’s a mile on the left”. I cannot recall getting lost. If so, you just stopped and asked the way. Yet I regard those days as the golden age of the veterinary profession when its standing with the public was the highest ever. This may have been helped at the time by a general consensus that veterinary study was the most difficult course of the day, and of course James Herriot. I can certainly confirm that. It consisted of a number of subjects, all requiring much memorisation, which dovetailed in over the basic 5 years, so that at anytime you were taking 2 or 3 subjects and the exams came at irregular intervals. If you failed you were relegated to repeat the subject, so that I knew people who took as much as 8 years to complete the course.
In most practices the only back-room staff was one hard worked secretary, or wife, and a yard man, so that if you owned your own practice, there was a lot more to it than just treating animals. Most practices would board at least a few dogs and cats. In Plymouth I ran a large boarding kennels for dogs and cats and later exotica, from rabbits to reptiles, a very busy clipping parlour – this was the age of the poodle – a Quarantine Station, and a transport business collecting dogs and cats from airports and ports for our own and other quarantine stations. That was 5 vigorous enterprises, which meant a lot of logistics, accounting and staff. Everything was bought in bulk, and such factory by-products as Farley’s Rusks and Ambrosia rice pudding eagerly collected. Sawdust and straw likewise, and chain-link fencing was procured from a Youth Remand Centre in Cornwall. There were no ready made kennels, we made our own. I became an expert in wire work, enough to satisfy the MAAF inspectors.
In the early days there were no veterinary nurses. We had what we called surgery girls. They were multi-taskers. For example one would work in the clipping room and then shoot up to the quarantine kennels to exercise and clean there. I can assure you their work did not suffer. Their Cowboy or Lion clips were a joy to behold. Another would be in charge of the boarding kennels and anyone of them would assist with operations. These jobs were in such demand that when I advertised a vacancy there was a queue from the surgery to the main road, some 50 yards long.
Mine may have been an extreme example, but many vets did something similar. On the other hand I once visited a practice in Hayle where the vet’s wife earned more from her boarding, clipping and dog breeding than he ever did, or ever would, from his veterinary practice. But then he was pretty laid back. He spent most days fishing from his boat, and he showed me a telephone box situated almost on the beach, where he would land every 2 or 3 hours and phone home in case he had any calls. When I visited another vet in Ashburton, he showed me a vast table in his kitchen where he operated on one end while his wife cooked at the other.
What I am saying is that this was a time when most vets worked frenetic long days, but others chose not to because they were free of the regulations which stifle today’s profession. New medicines were being marketed every month and the practising arm of the profession seized upon them and often found further uses for them which stand to this day. I believe that would be a crime by today’s regulations. It was a time of initiative, of a profession peopled largely by eccentrics who nevertheless formed many of the specialist bodies which exist today. They built the profession of today and I am proud to have been part of that era.