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Ten-minute chat
  1. Denis Oliver


Denis Oliver qualified from Edinburgh vet school in 1942 and retired in June 2013 after spending 70 years in practice in Grantham. His last official duty was at the Shire Horse Show in March, when he presented the Oliver medal for the best shod horse.

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Why did you study veterinary medicine?

I wanted to be a farmer like many of my relatives, but because of the agricultural depression, the advice was that there was no future in farming. I still wanted to work with animals, so I decided to be a vet. I had matriculated at age 15 and started vet school aged 17.

Were your studies affected by the Second World War?

Yes, I was a frustrated member of the Dick Vet's cavalry officer training corps. Veterinary students were not called up because being a veterinary surgeon was a reserved occupation, so I was not allowed to fight. I saw my friends go to fight and some died.

Interestingly, a Polish veterinary school and a medical school were set up in Edinburgh during the war and English and Polish students studied part of the curriculum together. Once qualified there was a high level of unemployment. I was one of 47 applicants for my first job and many graduates worked for their keep in order to get clinical experience.

As a young vet you lived at the practice; what was that like?

I married in January 1946 and my parents helped me to buy a practice in Grantham. In those days it was commonplace to live at the practice. My wife was really the practice manager and nurse; she spoke about her role as a vet's wife at the BVA Congress in Swansea in 1977.

When our children arrived – a daughter and a son – they too would help out in the surgery when they were old enough. In fact, my daughter reminds me that every Christmas morning (it seemed) I would be called to a calving, so the children had to wait for their presents! In those days I was never off duty. The telephone supervisor at the exchange had to be kept informed of where I was and calls were transferred to me. Sometimes, local doctors, dentists and vets would help each other out by giving advice over the phone.

The advent of sulphonamides and antibiotics changed the way we could treat animals. The work then was 90 per cent large animal, mostly pigs, which was a government push after the war, and I was very involved with the Pig Industrial Development Association.

There was also almost a complete demise of horse work after the war, to the extent that it was discussed whether equine studies should be removed from the veterinary syllabus. One example of this loss was felt at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953 when the country had to be scoured for suitable horses to pull the carriages. I treated a horse with severe thrush that then travelled to London by train to take part.

You were BVA President in 1964/65; what were the highs and lows of your year?

The first high point was holding my congress in Edinburgh. Secondly, it was giving evidence to the Brambell Committee on animal welfare – I was the first president to gather a group of expert vets to read a government report and issue an immediate press release. Another was being involved in the 1966 Veterinary Surgeons Act. Also, as BVA President, I was invited to attend Winston Churchill's State Funeral. Finding myself on the steps of St Paul's standing within feet of world leaders was surreal.

My low point was the lack of government funding for the eradication of brucellosis as so many vets and animals were dying of the disease.

You were also president of the Shire Horse Society – what sparked your interest in shire horses?

As a small child working on relatives' farms, I worked with heavy horses in a way that wouldn't be allowed now because of health and safety concerns, but I fell utterly for these majestic animals.

Denis Oliver was one of 21 former BVA presidents who met at the BVA in July

Was it that that led to your serving as Master of the Worshipful Company of Farriers in 1980?

A new farriery apprentice training scheme was introduced in 1960s started by the Worshipful Company of Farriers and, one day, when I was talking with Reg Wooldridge of the Animal Health Trust, he suggested I join the Company and I was chairman of the Examinations Board for 13 years, and Master of the Worshipful Company of Farriers in 1980/81.

Tell us about your OBE?

I don't know who put me forward for it. Aside from being Secretary and President of the BVA, I was the chief vet of Royal Show for a very long time – 24 years in fact.

What's the secret of your long life?

My first reaction to this question would be to be to say it was because I married a girl from Atholl Crescent Domestic Science School in Edinburgh! However, I think it is really never say no to any invitation to get involved.

What was the best advice you were ever given?

It was from my father who strongly suggested that I should do the BSc degree (very new in the 1940s) as well as the MRCVS, as suggested by Charnock Bradley at my interview at the Dick.

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