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Doing history
  1. Abigail Woods


History is something often taken up in retirement, or pursued as a hobby, but for Abigail Woods it turned unexpectedly into an entirely new career

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AFTER qualifying in 1996, I spent nearly two years in small animal practice. It was all-demanding, but not particularly fulfilling. I was feeling a bit jaded and decided that I needed some time out, so I enrolled for an MSc in the history of science, technology and medicine at Manchester university.

I had first encountered this subject in my intercalated BSc degree at Cambridge. I chose it more because I couldn't face a year doing anatomy, neurology or pathology than because I was particularly into history, which I hadn't studied since I was 14. To my surprise, I absolutely loved it. An entirely new way of looking at the world opened up before me. For years I had dutifully absorbed the huge quantities of scientific facts needed to pass my exams and become a vet. Now, I was studying the people, politics and society that had produced those facts. Learning about the sheer contingency of the processes involved made me realise that things didn't have to turn out the way that they did. Present-day ideas and practices could only be understood by referring to history.

At the time, none of this made any difference to my long-term plans. I finished my BSc, completed three more years of the veterinary degree, and went into general practice as I had intended to do since I was a child. But when practice didn't live up to my expectations, I thought I might as well enjoy a year of further study while thinking through my long-term options. I was lucky enough to secure a grant, and by doing weekend locums I could support myself quite easily.

Although it is an academic subdiscipline of history, the history of science, technology and medicine welcomes students from a range of disciplinary backgrounds and is taught by many ex-scientists who ‘saw the light’. Even so, it was a shock to my system. Instead of the camaraderie of vet school and its closely regulated teaching regime, I was a lone scholar. It was my responsibility to search out reading material, think independently, learn how to argue and question, and to write discursive essays instead of lists of bullet points. I discovered that what many people think of as history – the names, dates and events – is only the starting point for postgraduate study. The really difficult part is explaining these facts.

Undertaking a PhD

I found the MSc degree hard work but highly satisfying, so when I heard that there might be funding available to carry out a PhD on some aspect of veterinary history, I jumped at the chance. Whereas in science, PhD students and junior researchers end up working on someone else's project, in history they usually select their own topics of study and win personal funding. This results in a very different culture. Research is an individual and sometimes a lonely business, conducted in archives, libraries and increasingly online, but there is little hierarchy because even the lowliest PhD student is an expert in their chosen subject. This intellectual freedom and collaborative working really appealed to me, in ways that scientific research never did.

For my PhD, I decided to write a history of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in Britain. Eighteen months later, the past came to life as in 2001 the country was ravaged with its worst ever FMD epidemic. As the only person who had studied its history, I found myself quickly drawn into a media circus, for which I was entirely unprepared. Having learned not to take the present for granted, I thought it entirely reasonable to ask why we had a slaughter policy, and to seek an answer in history, yet within certain circles it was regarded as rank heresy even to ask the question. Persisting nevertheless, I realised how important it is for history to speak to the present and try to inform its future.

After completing my PhD, turning it into a book (‘A Manufactured Plague: The History of Foot-and-Mouth Disease in Britain’, published by Earthscan in 2004), and embarking on postdoctoral research, I was appointed lecturer in the history of medicine at Imperial College London. Accepting that I was now unlikely to return full time to veterinary practice, I gave up the weekend locum work. I wouldn't have had time in any case. Regardless of subject, academia is a highly pressurised arena, with constant demands to win grants, publish research, engage with the public and deliver quality teaching. Unlike veterinary practice, the work is never finished, and it can be difficult to set boundaries between home and work.

I don't miss practice. Academia offers greater autonomy, and most (but not all) days I wake up thankful that I do it for a living. There are more similarities than you might imagine between small animal consulting and teaching students. My veterinary knowledge isn't wasted as it informs my historical research, which has spanned the history of the veterinary profession, livestock health and husbandry, preventive veterinary medicine and the history of One Health.

Nowadays, whether I introduce myself as a vet or a historian, or both, generally depends on the context. Although I'll be moving to the history department of King's College London in August 2013, I still have close links to the profession: I am secretary to the Central Veterinary Society, a council member of the Veterinary History Society, and am helping the RCVS Trust to develop an oral history of veterinary practice. But unlike university medical schools – which have employed a number of medical historians over the last few years – no veterinary school seems to want a veterinary historian, so I will continue to work in non-veterinary institutions, teaching medical undergraduates, supervising PhD students and mentoring postdoctoral researchers in history.

While working in veterinary history at a university isn't an obvious career path for the qualified vet, it's certainly fulfilling, and there's definitely room for more of us. If you feel it's time for a change, then why not think about enrolling for an MSc degree?

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