Just after the war, most veterinary surgeries were pretty bleak affairs. The Sidmouth surgery was typical; an old brick building behind the Volunteer Inn. That was it, just bricks, no plastering or any attempt at comfort what-so-ever, and as cold as charity. Where I saw practice as a student, in London, Stevenage and North Tawton, it was just the same.
Yet the mornings all hummed with activity enough to keep anyone warm. Steam filled the air as syringes, catheters and instruments were sterilised for the day’s work on open gas rings – syringes and needles in small stainless steel dishes and long catheters, also stainless steel, in long fish kettles- all bubbled away like the devil’s cauldron. These long conceived with a liquid known as Lugol’s Iodine. Who Lugol was I never divined, but the farmers swore by this treatment, so it was in great demand. We made the solution up every morning in recycled calcium bottles. We also made up various medicines, many specific to the practice and so powerful that the corks had to be held down with string and hot sealing wax. At that time we did not have antibiotics, but we did have Sulphonamides, soon to be overshadowed by Penicillin, but never-the-less very useful drugs. A treatment for diarrhoea in cattle required a precise amount of powder squared up on a bench with a spatula, divided into 16 squares, then each wrapped in brown paper to make a twice daily dose. In the cupboard was a Red Drench, a loaf-size block of Epsom Salts, and a Brown Drench, mainly ginger, a very popular bovine tonic. The shelves above held wonderfully shaped glass dropper bottles of oils and exotic tinctures.
All this activity then led to the ceremony of the day. As we all gathered around the pulpit which held the large diary and the day’s tasks were handed out, the gossip flowed and any young vet was able to learn more than any college could teach.
Usually someone was missing because he, unlucky soul, had missed breakfast for a calving, lambing or milk fever. Clients would wander into this hive of activity, bringing their pets for treatment, but such work was never any more than a sideline and any money taken would be thrown into the petty cash. There was at that time in the profession a very macho attitude that the only real work was farm work. This lingered on into the sixties when I was trying to build up a town practice in Plymouth on the back of a large farm practice. The principal of a firm across the Tamar in Saltash was an irascible Welshman (we’re not saying all Welshmen are irascible – editor). On being called upon to visit a dog in the isolated Saltash Passage he got out of his car with the statement, “I don’t usually visit bloody dogs!” Needless to say the client, a breeder of Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, transferred to me forthwith and became a lifelong client. Then he introduced me to his neighbour, a certain Mr. Thomasjeski, and when he died, his widow continued as a client for many years as long as she kept dogs. That’s how it went. I cannot speak for today, but then there was a protocol for the free and easy transfer of clients as they wished. It was all very gentlemanly. The etiquette was for the gaining practice to inform the losing practice; a pointless exercise really because the client had the right to do what they liked. But there was a vet in Honiton who styled himself with a military title and would have none of it. He would call on the hapless client and demand to know why. Two times out of three they would meekly recant. The veterinary profession was full of eccentrics.
You may notice I have made no mention of nurses. That is because there weren’t any. If any assistance was required with patients we called in the yard man. Every practice had a yard man, who maintained the cars, cleaned up, and generally did anything required of them. A marvellous breed of men. The only female in the practice was upstairs in the office trying to decipher the scribblings in the ridiculously small books in which we recorded, under most difficult conditions, our day’s work on the farms.
It may all sound very primitive and hard, but it was a wonderful career, in an atmosphere of freedom which you can hardly imagine in these days of rules and regulations.