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A world of opportunity
  1. Martin Gregory

Abstract

Martin Gregory has had a highly varied career. Here, he recalls how his veterinary training gave him the chance to work around the world

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I DIDN'T really want to be a vet; I wanted to do biology. But I chose the veterinary course because it offered applied biology, and a job. I have never regretted it, but the outcome was that I became several different vets in the course of one career. I learned early on that practice didn't really suit me; I never had time to find out what was really going on. When the owner was satisfied, that was that – on to the next client. I always wanted to look deeper. And I wanted to travel.

Even as a student, I had found excuses to travel. We had to get farming experience, and although I had spent most of my school holidays on a farm, I chose to spend two months in Sweden, on a little old farm buried deep in the forest, where my employer knew no English and I knew no Swedish. I relished the challenge, but I'm not sure that he did.

And I once saw practice in Cannes, on the French Riviera, with an amiable playboy who pampered the poodles of opulent people. On my arrival, he announced excitedly that in two weeks' time he was going to do an ovariohysterectomy on a cat – a major event. Normally I saw practice with Nigel Snodgrass in Oxford, where I was used to hearing something like ‘… and there's three or four spays to do this afternoon Jack, perhaps you could get those done when you've got half an hour to spare’.

I'd have been happy to remain a student, but I had to face real life, and when I finally qualified in 1961, I worked with Tommy Shanks in Retford. After a year, I had to leave, to be nearer to my ailing father in Oxford. Tommy said he was sorry to see me go, but commented, ‘You were bloody useless at the beginning!’

When my dad died I took a two-year contract in Kenya. After independence, the UK Government had bought European-owned farms and divided them up for landless Africans. Each was given livestock on loan, and my job was to maintain their health and fertility, so that their new owners could repay their loans.

Kenya changed my life. I learned much about its animals, but more about its peoples – African, European and Asian, their languages, customs, problems and prejudices.

I was often asked afterwards whether I had worked with wildlife in Kenya. I would have loved to, but (apart from hedgehogs) I did not. I did have a brush with an orphan elephant called Eleanor, who got me called out to the Aberdare Forest at midnight when she had a belly ache. She was only five years old, but big enough to give me a hefty clout with her trunk. On another occasion, I got the opportunity to do a worm count in a zebra that had been killed for biometric studies by a team of wildlife biologists. There were about two million adult nematodes in the colon of this healthy beast, all apparently living as happily as their host had lived – a fine example of ecological harmony (at least until the biologists came on the scene).

Nepal

On my way home from Kenya, I visited Ethi­opia, Sudan and Lebanon; I got as far as Beirut but then turned right instead of left, and visited agricultural and veterinary establishments in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Thailand, Japan, Honolulu and Tahiti.

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In Nepal, while hitchhiking to Kathmandu from the Indian border, I shared the back of a lorry with Lopsang, a Sherpa mountain guide, who invited me to his home. ‘How far is it from Kathmandu?’ I asked. ‘Six days,’ he replied. There were no roads, so I found myself walking on the main route between Kathmandu and Tibet – the one that goes past Everest Base Camp. Accommodation was supplied free of charge by villagers on the way, but travellers paid for food. The further we got from the city, the poorer the food became. After four days it was just boiled rice and spinach, and my stomach rebelled. Lopsang had to get on, so he let me catch up in my own time. The next day, I came to a Swiss agricultural project, where I was greeted with smiles and a heaven-sent steak and chips. I was encouraged to move on, but their horse got colic, so I was able to be useful. The following day I moved on and, after a night al fresco (very fresco, at 3000 metres), I found Lopsang in his home. Thirty years later, when I came to work in Nepal, I found him again.

Further studies

On my return to Europe I took a course in tropical veterinary medicine – not in Edinburgh, as any normal Brit would have done, but at Maisons-Alfort in France. I had married a Dane, and we chose to live in the Latin Quarter of Paris, not knowing that some months later we'd be engulfed in riots. It was 1968. We had to shut the windows to keep the tear gas out. But I got my diploma (with distinction) and took it with me back to Kenya, where I spent four years training the sort of assistants with whom I had worked in the field a couple of years earlier. I taught them biology and took them on rinderpest vaccination campaigns. On the strength of this training work, I was offered another job by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), this time in Ivory Coast. However, FAO wheels turn slowly, and I passed the time in Denmark, writing up some research I had done in my spare time on the local hedgehogs during my last year in Kenya. Mange mites, courtship calls and a still unexplained transmissible tumour gave rise to 13 publications in learned journals.

In Ivory Coast, I was put in charge of a branch diagnostic laboratory in Korhogo, in the north. Rabies was rife, but my role concentrated on bovine pleuropneumonia. I didn't manage very well, but they couldn't find a replacement, so I stayed there happily for three years.

Then, thanks to a chance meeting at a FAO refresher course in Edinburgh, I landed a six-month contract with the European Commission (EC). It involved travelling to all the then members of the European Common Market looking at information storage and retrieval. Just the job. However, it lasted only six months, and for some weeks afterwards I got a taste of unemployment, with a young family and a mortgage to pay.

Research

I like to think that it was on the strength of my hedgehog research that I finally got where I had wanted to be: in the parasitology department at the Central Veterinary Laboratory, Weybridge. Len Joyner put me to work on coccidiosis in sheep and, as usual, I made a slow start. Coccidia seemed to be boring bugs – they were too small to see, and caused illness only in intensive conditions, but that's actually why they were fascinating. Sheep can shed coccidia in astronomical numbers, even when blossoming with health, but coccidia can kill. It turned out that some species target the stem cells of the gut, thereby destroying the host's ability to heal itself; meanwhile, other species ensure that their host cells remain in good supply by dividing synchronously with them.

It appeared that lambs had to be protected from infection; or did they? While trying to demonstrate the benefit of clean lambing pens, we demonstrated the opposite. At first we didn't believe the results, and concluded that something had gone wrong with the experiment, but the truth was that lambs born in dirty pens did better. They got massive doses of coccidia, which (at that age) caused no disease but still conferred some immunity.

As a researcher, I had to get my results published and I had to read the work of others. I had to plough through page after page of the pompous prose that pervades the literature. I collected examples, including papers purporting to ridicule the sort of verbosity that they themselves were using. I wrote an article about them, which was published in Nature and reprinted in other journals.

While at Weybridge, I got to go on an-other trip. Thanks to the Royal Society and the Soviet Academy of Sciences, I was sent on a study tour to Moscow, Leningrad, Tallinn and Baku.

A countrywide serological survey of the livestock in Yemen was interesting and challenging

I was really engrossed in the business of coccidia, but the government of the time decided that we should only do research that brought in money. That meant drug trials, which didn't interest me. So, after 13 years and a pile of publications, I left for Yemen.

The Overseas Develop­ment Admin-istration had been seeking an epidemiologist to work in Yemen, and since the word epidemiology appeared in my CV, I got the job. Again, I was useless at the start, but eventually spent four fascinating years organising a countrywide serological survey of Yemen's livestock. Such a survey had never been done, and the job was made even more interesting and more challenging by the fact that, six weeks after my arrival, the country tripled in size when North Yemen merged with the south.

I will never forget the friendliness and hospitality of the Yemeni people. Everywhere we went, I and my team were welcomed and fed and housed with genuine warmth. It was a beautiful country with delightful people whose traditional ways of using their sparse resources were ingenious and remarkable.

Rinderpest eradication

On my return to Europe, I was soon lured abroad again, to Nepal, where the Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme was getting under way. I had to organise clinical and serological surveys to assess the extent of the disease and the progress of its eradication. Our task was made easier by the fact that rinderpest had apparently already been eradicated, but we still had to prove it to the satisfaction of the FAO and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). Through the efforts of my team, Nepal became the first country to achieve the status of ‘freedom from rinderpest infection’ via the OIE protocol.

New challenges

I call myself an epidemiologist (except in the company of epidemiologists, when I'm a parasitologist) and have survived as such because the epidemiology that's been required of me has demanded as much common sense as erudite theory. As a veterinary epidemiologist I have been bombarded with inquiries about short-term contracts, for projects in interesting places, funded mainly by the EC. These jobs are unpredictable and they usually come at short notice. They suit someone who relishes new challenges, new places and tight schedules. Such contracts have given me several trips, including to Pakistan, Armenia, Senegal, Albania and Nepal.

In Senegal, a mainly Muslim country, I was pleased to be involved with a FAO project to train women to vaccinate village poultry against Newcastle disease. All over the world, the most important livestock are village poultry. They provide a constant supply of protein with minimal husbandry, if they stay alive. But they tend to be forgotten in development plans, perhaps because they are usually the concern of the women.

Also of particular interest was Armenia, where they had serious problems adjusting to the post-Soviet era. I was asked, among other things, to advise on the control of zoonoses such as brucellosis. I presented the pros and cons of the various options available, but they didn't want choice, they wanted to be told what to do. That said, the Armenians themselves were a delight, as was their hospitality.

In 2008 it occurred to me that, rather than doing the work myself, a softer option might be to evaluate other people's work, so I took a course in project evaluation in Brussels. I soon learned, of course, that evaluation, like most things in life, is not so simple.

As a vet, I have enjoyed wearing several hats. If I have achieved anything, it's thanks mainly to the countless people I've worked with. But I'm still a biologist at heart, and, having been rewarded with a fellowship of the Society of Biology, I feel that my cup is now full. Well, almost.

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