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Where art and science meet
  1. Ann Holden


Ann Holden had to give up veterinary practice for medical reasons, and is now studying for membership of the Medical Artists' Association of Great Britain

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‘WHY don't you become a nice lady doctor?’ and ‘I suppose you must love animals’ were the most frequent comments I received when I announced that I wanted to be a vet. There was no precedent for such a career within the family at the time, and we had never kept animals as both my parents worked.

The only time I stopped speaking to my mother when I was in my early teens was when she refused to let me keep a donkey in our small suburban garden, despite my detailed business plan for this. The reasoning for my career choice was that I enjoyed science, wasn't too keen on humans and was distinctly squeamish about medical procedures: veterinary medicine appeared to be a good compromise. A number of work experiences should have been a deterrent: a disillusioned and cynical vet did his best to put me off; I received a bad bite from a dachshund in a practice run by a draconian lady practitioner; and, finally, a kennel owner (a highly intelligent but eccentric man) attacked the VAT man with a naval sword soon after I worked for him!

However, in the manner of most teenagers who are given advice, I ignored it and qualified in 1980 from Cambridge vet school, having spent a very happy six years at Newnham College. One of the main reasons I enjoyed the course at Cambridge was that it allowed more contact with students reading subjects other than veterinary medicine, and also offered the chance to spend the third year reading subjects that were not purely veterinary (I took comparative pathology and history of medicine).

Ann with her late labrador, Archie

After graduation, feeling that I would like to stay in academic life but lacking the confidence to do so, I went into small animal practice in the north of England, in the practice of the late, great Jim Gourley (JG). It was in most respects an excellent practice for a new graduate to gain experience in: there were several assistants of similar age; there was a huge throughput of cases, with ample out-of-hours work; and the conditions of employment, including a generous pay and bonus scheme, would put many practices to shame, even today. Some of JG's clinical diktats were difficult to justify and we became skilled at finding ways around them. However, one day he asked me why I was about to x-ray a dog's abdomen. ‘Because I can feel a lump,’ I said. ‘If you can feel a lump, just open it up and see what it is,’ he replied. I still feel that's a valuable approach.

From Ashton-under-Lyne, where I worked for more than five years, I moved to three other small animal practices, and my experiences in these convinced me to set up my own practice. Churchview Veterinary Surgery on the Wirral opened in 1989 and is still there now, although I sold the business in 2000. The rewards (professionally, but definitely not financially) of running one's own surgery are immeasurable, but the strains proved to be similar. Since graduation I had experienced a number of depressive episodes, mostly controlled with medication when necessary. However, in 1999, I was hospitalised and, although I returned to work after three months, I realised that my life would have to change. In addition, my increasing deafness (I had first worn hearing aids as a student), while not adversely affecting my work, made consulting much more tiring than it might have been.

So, from April 2000, when the practice was sold, I took a sabbatical year, completing a charity challenge, cycling in Rajasthan in aid of the National Deaf Children's Society, and spending three months in West Bengal working as a vet for the charity Help in Suffering. Subsequently, I worked as a care support worker – an experience that my mother felt was more use than anything I had done previously! I was then fortunate to get a part-time job as a medical writer for a niche medical communications company in the oncology field. I continue to work for this company on a freelance basis, and find it tremendously interesting and stimulating.

This pelvis (Conté crayon and pastel) was a medical art assignment drawn at lifesize

Short-eared owl (coloured pencil and pastel) exhibited at the National Exhibition of Wildlife Art 2010

I had always enjoyed drawing and, for relaxation, had spent some time developing these skills. I decided that I could offer pet, and later human, portraits on commission. I set up ‘ArtisAnn’ ( and was pleased to receive several commissions. My greatest achievement in this field was to be given the commission to paint a portrait of Professor Leslie Vaughan, to be hung in the new wing of the Queen Mother Hospital at the Royal Veterinary College. Sadly, Professor Vaughan died only a few days before the portrait was due to be unveiled, but he had been able to view (and, thankfully, approve) it while he was in hospital.

While I enjoy working on pet portraits, I felt in need of a more intellectually challenging occupation. By good chance or a quirk of Google, I found the website of the Medical Artists' Association of Great Britain (MAA) and discovered that there was a part-time course in medical art, run by the Medical Artists' Education Trust (MAET) leading to professional membership of the MAA.

I applied in August 2010 and, after interview and submission of a detailed portfolio, was admitted to the course in September 2010. As far as I know, I am the first vet to be enrolled. The course takes at least two-and-a-half years to complete and comprises mainly home study, with monthly seminars held in the Wellcome Museum of Anatomy and Pathology at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. The assignments that must pass assessment by a demanding board of examiners include a wide range of subjects in a variety of traditional and digital media (but not photography, the realm of the medical illustrator), from a life-sized femur in pencil and a pelvis in Conté crayon and pastel, to a PowerPoint presentation on a medical topic and a 4000-word dissertation. In March 2011, we (the three students) were able to visit Antwerp university for a dissection drawing marathon – a whole day drawing body parts in the university dissection rooms as part of an ‘art researches science’ project. We also have anatomy instruction from Professor Christopher Buckland-Wright (chairman of applied clinical anatomy at Guy's Hospital until 2008): this time round, I enjoy it more but remember it even less!

The MAA and MAET have a close and beneficial relationship with the Worshipful Company of Barbers, and our assessments are held in the Barber-Surgeons' Hall in the City of London. The company provides bursaries for MAET students to undertake further study, and this year I was able to attend a week's summer school in anatomical drawing at the Edinburgh College of Art, and a week at the department of photography and illustration, focusing on digital techniques, at the University of Cambridge.

I feel tremendously privileged to have such opportunities at this stage in my life. In time, I hope I will be able to combine the medical art and writing, to provide a service for the medical and veterinary professions.

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