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ON January 23, Edward John Witting Birley, BVMS, CertVD, of Tasmania, Australia. Mr Birley qualified from Glasgow in 1966.
Jim Wight writes: Our ‘Class of ’66' (graduates of the University of Glasgow veterinary school in 1966) has always been a close one. Many strong friendships were forged during those years of veterinary education, and these have been cemented by five-yearly reunions. Long discussions into the night, with tales of the seesawing fortunes of veterinary practice – the glorious triumphs and the desperate, but so entertaining, disasters – ensuring that we have never lost touch over our 45 years since graduation.
It was around the time of our last reunion that we learned of the passing of John Birley, one of the most popular and entertaining members of our year. His death came as a shock to us all, and our group will be much the poorer for our loss.
The veterinary profession has always been illuminated by great characters, and John Birley was one of them. A highly intelligent man with an acute and, at times, devastating sense of humour, he led a varied and fulfilling life both within and without his profession. At university, he had a wide range of interests, from rock climbing to amateur dramatics and classical music.
In common with many of a high intellect and strong sense of humour, he was prone to periods of euphoria and depression, and these were evident in his years at university. The roguish laugh emanating from the open and boyish features, the smile with never a care in the world, would contrast sharply with the gaunt figure, eyes smouldering deeply in their sockets, stalking the streets of Glasgow into the early hours; looming exams would frequently turn John – a slight figure at the best of times – into a skeleton.
Following his graduation, John worked for the PDSA, during which time his natural bent towards small animal practice was strengthened. He soon learned to perform operations on cats and dogs with both skill and speed.
His next position was in a mixed practice near his home town of Chesterfield. From here, he took up a post in Gloucester, and it was while working in mixed practice that his future direction away from the large animal side of his profession was determined. Stressful experiences such as seeing ‘Visit bear’ with the initial ‘J’ beside it in the practice day book, and a debilitating session of stuffing mountainous rolls of cotton wool into the bleeding scrota of freshly castrated bulls, remained embedded in his memory.
After leaving Gloucester, John set up his own practice near Dronfield in Derbyshire, where he began working from a mobile clinic, visiting his clients wherever and whenever they needed his services.
It was around this time that he met his future wife Wendy while on a package tour to Morocco. After they were married, Wendy and John spent the next few years in Dronfield, where they had two children, Kim and Imogen. In 1975, they emigrated to Wendy's country of birth, Australia, where they settled in the central Victoria town of Daylesford. Here, John built up a solo practice where, interestingly, he took on both large and small animal work. The small animal clients appreciated his professionalism and deep, genuine compassion for their pets. Craggy Australian farmers soon came to like the smallish English vet with his sparky humour and a willingness to rise at any hour of the night to attend to their animals. He further enhanced his reputation in Australia by becoming involved with the Save the Kangaroo Party.
While he was in practice, John worked with Dr Rowan Blogg, a specialist ophthalmologist. He became very interested in this aspect of small animal practice and he further varied his professional life by working at an out-of-hours clinic in Melbourne, dealing with night-time emergencies.
This was a fulfilling and enterprising period of John's life, but his fertile and active mind would always be looking for new challenges. One of these was to build his own house. John and Wendy planned and built a large sandstone house themselves, something that I find almost unbelievable. During this time, John decided to try his hand at a totally different profession: he abandoned veterinary practice and trained as a teacher, teaching biology at the school where his son and daughter were pupils. He was highly successful in this field, where the children loved his unusual and wicked sense of humour.
In 1990, John and Wendy moved to Tasmania, where his interest in veterinary practice resurfaced. He worked in two prestigious practices, the first being the Hobart Animal Hospital, where he stayed for four years, before moving to Tasmanian Animal Hospitals, a large eight-vet practice.
By this time John was highly qualified. In 1989, he had acquired his membership of the Australian College of Veterinary Scientists. After this time, he became interested in small animal dermatology, soon gaining a fine reputation as a consultant veterinary dermatologist. In 2004, he obtained his certificate in veterinary dermatology from the RCVS.
John visited me in 2004, while in the UK to sit the examinations for his certificate. I had not seen him for several years but the old enthusiasm had not dimmed. As if he had not packed enough into his life, he began enthusing about one of his latest enterprises, a travelling Punch and Judy show that he took around Tasmania and Australia! The rapport with children, which flourished in his teaching years, was still there.
Sadly, John's mood swings were to lead eventually to his divorce from Wendy. He remarried, but his second wife, Karen, was to endure many changes in his personality. John's health was to suffer in the final two or three years in the form of an aortic aneurysm. He underwent surgery, barely surviving, before he had to face Karen's tragic death from lung cancer.
Following her death, ensuing financial problems meant that John had to face the possibility of bankruptcy. Despite all this, he made plans to start a mobile clinic, similar to the one he ran back in England in the 1970s. However, the financial constraints, together with trips in and out of psychiatric wards, proved too much for him, and John finally died by his own hand in January of this year.
He will be remembered by all his many friends as a true credit to the profession he embraced so enthusiastically. I treasure the last time I saw him, at our reunion of 2006 on Loch Lomondside, where he entertained us into the early hours of the morning with hilarious accounts of a life of achievement and great variety.
My sincere condolences go to John's family and the countless friends who were privileged to have enjoyed his company. From the very first days I knew him in Glasgow, until our last meeting in 2006, I was always aware of the same feeling: whenever I was in the company of John Birley I considered myself to be a very ordinary human being.
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