The real James Herriot world - Veterinary Practice
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The real James Herriot world

The James Herriot stories described the world in which the 1930s practitioner was seen, but the world in which he worked was a much harder reality

The James Herriot adventures, currently being retold on television, demonstrate again that Alf Wight knew how to use his knowledge of veterinary practice to tell a good story. His collection of veterinary problems and experiences have been enjoyed by millions and have provided a stimulus for many to decide on a veterinary career.

Alf told a story well but did not (and it was not his purpose) describe the reality of the 1930s veterinary world. The 1920s, following the First World War, had been difficult. Over half of the profession had been in the army and returned to their practices to find them mostly run-down, reduced in value and almost all suffering from the abrupt decline in the use of the horse, pre-war the mainstay of practice. Motor vehicles were rapidly taking over all forms of transport. In a few years, the only horse work was racehorses, hunters, hacks and remaining farm horses. Then, from 1929 to ’33, the Great Depression. Throughout the 1930s there was a national background of poverty and unemployment.

Rural practice was centred on country towns with livestock work increasing slowly, centred on dairy cattle in small herds on many small mixed farms. Practice income was low and payment from cash-short farmers invariably slow. The practitioner’s problem was that while knowledge and the causes of many diseases had progressed there had been little advance since the 1900s in methods of practice and, in particular, in treatments.

Day-to-day practice was a collection of cases as described in Herriot, but also described by one practitioner as “cow dung, blood and pus”. Infertility in cattle was a problem involving rectal and uterine procedures, including regular removal of a retained placenta, usually rotting. This involved being stripped to the waist, no gloves or plastic arm protection: there were many cases of skin infections and brucellosis – relapsing fever became an occupational hazard. Bloat was a common emergency call-out and quickly resolved, as well as milk fever, then treated by udder insufflation which when first introduced was almost magical, merely requiring a bicycle pump! There was little state-aided work, except in helping the police in the early control measures for foot-and-mouth.

Most medicaments were made on the premises from bought-in ingredients: magnesium sulphate, turpentine, liquid paraffin, aloes, castor oil, common salt, powdered and block sulphur and aromatic herbs such as asafoetida and fenugreek. These were made up in the “pharmacy” as rolled pills, powders in neatly folded paper, drenches (usually coloured) or used as sulphur in oil dressing for mange in dogs, Lugol’s iodine for bovine uterine irrigation or soapy water enemas. A mark of the good practice was presentation; every label affixed neatly, corks in bottles tied down, powders and pills packaged professionally – this was where income was made. But agricultural merchants and chemists all sold similar products direct to the farmer.

Veterinary research was minimal. In the early 1920s there were only five full-time veterinary research workers and minimal government funding. An Economic Advisory Committee on Cattle Diseases set up in 1934 estimated that 40 percent of the national herd was infected with tuberculosis as well as with Johne’s disease, contagious abortion and mastitis. Government then began to understand the need for research funding to aid the practitioner to help the farmer. In 1937 the Agricultural Research Council purchased a farm at Compton, Berkshire, the first national veterinary research field station, and in 1938 the Animal Health Division of the Ministry of Agriculture was created with its primary objective to eradicate bovine tuberculosis.

The practitioner was becoming involved; this meant extra income and visiting farms that only very rarely asked for veterinary assistance. The first Ministry project was to check the udders of all dairy cows for “lumps”: this required early visits as it had to be done after the morning milking, before the cows returned to pasture. If a lump was found a milk sample was taken, checked and then sent away for testing. In 1935 tuberculin testing started; this generated income and increased farmer contact. Swine fever had also become important, but difficult to diagnose. Pigs that died had to be post-mortemed and part of the intestines sent to the Weybridge Laboratory for diagnosis (the popular story was that the guts were thrown against a wall: if they stuck, it was swine fever!).

Progress was slow but gradually rural practice was becoming established; the farmer could appreciate the value of his local vet. Farm income, however, was still low; the small farm depended on the harvest and post-harvest was usually the time when veterinary bills were paid, or not paid. In all these years, the same antiquated medications remained the basis of treatment products. The discovery of calcium borogluconate as the specific (and dramatic) cure for milk fever was an important advance, and professional dignity was boosted by the use of a syringe rather than a bicycle pump. More important was the discovery of the first sulphonamide in 1935, the first broad-spectrum antibacterial. Within a few years sulphapyridine became a life-saver for many cows. Slowly, new and improved vaccines were developed, controlling clostridial sheep diseases and swine erysipelas. Then in the late 1930s the first effective canine distemper vaccine was developed by Laidlaw and Dunkin working at the Medical Research Council. Anaesthesia remained rather hazardous based on chloroform or ether until the injectable barbiturates were introduced in the 1940s. This really benefitted small animal practice, which was to expand rapidly in the 1950s.

Bruce Vivash Jones

Bruce Vivash Jones, BVetSts, MRCVS, graduated from the RVC in 1951. After retiring from his consultancy business in 2003, he began studying and writing on the history of the profession and veterinary medicine. Bruce was awarded an honorary DVetMed degree by the RVC in 2019 for his services to small animal practice, veterinary nursing and for his work on veterinary history.

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