The letters were written in 1840 to support a petition calling for the reformation of teaching and examination of students at the Royal Veterinary College in London. This huge wave of support from over 200 veterinary surgeons across the country paved the way for the formation of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.
Over the course of the project, 256 handwritten letters – many in challenging 19th-century handwriting – were fully transcribed by more than 50 volunteers, making them more easily accessible for 21st-century researchers and history enthusiasts.
A number of the project’s contributors were placed on furlough during the initial lockdown period and decided to use their time to contribute to their profession in a new way, by preserving its history. Volunteers came from various backgrounds and locations and included current vet students, practising and retired vets and vet nurses, and even a former Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO) of Jersey.
The collection of letters is a fascinating snapshot of the early days of a now well-established profession, when it was still fighting for recognition. According to Alison Skipper, a vet and PhD student researching the history of health and disease in pedigree dog breeding: “There is a sense of fraternity and cooperation in these letters – a wide variety of veterinarians, scattered right across the country, coming together to support an important cause – which also reflects the best of our sense of community today.”
In addition, many volunteers discovered a newfound interest in history, with most volunteers having no previous experience of transcription. Claire Coulthard, a registered veterinary nurse working in the North West of England, hated history at school, but during the project realised she was “becoming interested in the letters’ contents and the people who had written them.” By the end of the project, Claire had transcribed 16 letters in the collection, more than any other volunteer.
For retired small animal vet Carol Young, the project was a way “to reconnect with the profession I still missed”. Other volunteers, such as Linda Lowseck, retired former CVO of Jersey, had a more personal connection to veterinary history: “one of my great-grandfathers was a vet who qualified at the Dick Vet, Edinburgh in 1864 so I felt a particular interest in the era.”
RCVS Knowledge’s Vet History project preserves the history of the veterinary professions through the cataloguing and digitisation of the RCVS’ official archives. The collections are being made available online for free to all, making them more accessible to anyone with an interest in the professions’ evolution. Lorna Cahill Bannister, Archivist at RCVS Knowledge, who oversaw the transcription project, said: “We are enormously grateful for the commitment and contribution of our band of volunteers on this project. It was brilliant to be able to collaborate on something positive during such a difficult time.”
RCVS Knowledge already has plans for a second transcription project, likely to be launched early next year, focusing on the papers relating to early veterinary education.
You can browse the letters and their transcriptions at the Vet History Digital Collections site.