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Personalities that shaped the profession


As part of the RCVS’ 175th anniversary celebrations, the college’s charity partner and custodian of its historical collections, RCVS Knowledge, takes a look at the influential roles four individuals played in the early formation of the profession.

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This year the RCVS is celebrating its 175th anniversary, offering the perfect opportunity to look back at the history of the profession and draw parallels to where we are today.

RCVS Knowledge has spent the past four years surveying, cataloguing and digitising a swathe of fascinating material. The collections illustrate the long story of progress within the profession, with much of this progress down to the endeavours of some specific outstanding individuals.

The following series of vignettes sheds light on the stories of four such individuals, all of whom brought forth significant and lasting change despite, with one exception, not holding an official position of power within the RCVS.

The origins of the RCVS can be traced back to the actions of Thomas Mayer and his son Thomas Walton Mayer, who petitioned for support from veterinary surgeons across the country to improve the standard of veterinary education. Their memorial (as the petition was also known) stirred the profession into action, eventually culminating with the introduction of the first Royal Charter, and hence the founding of the RCVS. It’s apt that 2019 has also seen the Royal Veterinary College – to whom the Mayers presented their memorial back in 1840 – ranked as the top veterinary school in the world.

As evidence of how closely aligned the goals of the RCVS are and have been to those of the profession as a whole, an early RCVS president, George Fleming, led a similar charge to the Mayers by campaigning to protect the title of ‘veterinary surgeon’ in the late 19th century. His story is what underpins the professional status of modern-day vets, and his work has much in common with the more recent move to afford the same level of recognition to veterinary nurses.

It’s not just veterinary professionals who have had (and can have) a positive impact on the profession. A lawyer by trade, Fred Bullock spent nearly 40 years of his life as RCVS secretary and registrar. His commitment to all aspects of the college’s work and his depth of involvement in its day-to-day functions was so extreme that it is very difficult to separate his professional work from his private life.

Then there is the story of Aleen Cust, the woman whose passion for veterinary medicine underpinned her never-ceasing battle for acceptance from her veterinary peers, before the legal admission of women into the profession was won. A lot can be learned from Cust, not least that the biggest challenges can be overcome and that those who believe or have been told that ‘people like them’ do not become vets are now welcome.

Across these four stories, there is a strong theme of collaboration

Across these four stories, there is a strong theme of collaboration, as all of these individuals achieved progress with assistance from others inside, and outside, the profession.

Their successes are no less relevant in the 21st century, and are proof that all people, regardless of their position within the profession, can have a major influence on the profession’s continuing history of bettering itself.

Brief timeline of the RCVS’ history

Thomas Walton Mayer and his role in founding the RCVS

The Mayers of Newcastle-under-Lyme were a family of farriers and veterinary surgeons whose work, over four generations, spanned the transition from provincial farriery to the profession of veterinary surgery.

It is the family’s two generations of veterinary surgeons – Thomas Mayer and his son Thomas Walton Mayer – who played a pivotal role in the founding of the RCVS.

To trace the Mayers’ influence we need to go back to the founding of their alma mater, the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), then called the London College.

Following the death of the RVC’s first professor, Charles Vial de St Bel, in 1793 – just two years after the RVC was founded – the London College was dominated for the next 45 years by its second professor, Edward Coleman.

The years Coleman was at the helm saw an increasing sense of dissatisfaction among the profession, much of which was played out in the pages of The Veterinarian, edited by William Youatt. No friend of Coleman, Youatt wrote a series of articles and editorials giving impetus to the call for reform at the London College.

The Mayers called for reform and were actively involved in bringing this about

Following Coleman’s death in 1839, the Mayers – father and son – joined the call for reform and began to be actively involved in bringing it about. In an attempt to initiate change, they composed a memorial (or petition) to the governors at the RVC. The draft of the memorial shows that they had help from at least one other person – a certain William Youatt, who swiftly added his comments just four days after receiving it on 4 February 1840.

The memorial suggested changes to the teaching and administration of the RVC, which the authors believed would improve the status of the veterinary profession. The Mayers paid for the memorial to be circulated to the 700 or so qualified veterinary surgeons whose addresses were known. Around 400 letters of support were received and 267 of these have been digitised and made available to read on RCVS Knowledge’s Digital Collections as part of the RCVS’ 175th anniversary celebrations.

The memorial was presented to the governors of the RVC in June 1840; however, the Mayers had failed to realise that the college was a private institution and, as such, they had no right to try to interfere with its management. The governors simply decided no changes were needed.

While the memorial itself may have been a failure, it had marshalled the emerging veterinary profession into a force with one aim in mind: to create a professional identity with legal standing.

The next step was to petition the Privy Council in the hope of obtaining a Royal Charter that would grant the privileges and exemptions (eg, from jury service) enjoyed by other professional bodies. A committee was formed with Thomas Walton Mayer as secretary – he arranged meetings, organised deputations, drafted petitions and collected the subscriptions.

During the process, the Privy Council made it clear that it would not consider granting a charter unless the three professors of the RVC and William Dick of the Edinburgh School (now The Royal [Dick] School of Veterinary Studies) put their names to the petition. It fell to Walton Mayer to ensure that they did this before presenting the petition to the Privy Council.

Portrait of Thomas Walton Mayer, who also served as a veterinary surgeon in the Royal Engineers

In March 1844 the Royal Charter for the Incorporation of Veterinary Surgeons was granted by Queen Victoria, with the Mayer family contributing £100 of the £1000 cost of its acquisition.

Mayer was a signatory to the Charter and both he and his son became examiners and served on the RCVS council. Walton Mayer served as vice-president five times.

As well as their contribution to political matters, the Mayers both contributed papers to the professional journals of the time on clinical matters, while continuing to run their practice in Newcastle-under-Lyme with its purpose-built ‘veterinary infirmary’.

In 1855, seven years after the death of his father, Walton Mayer left Newcastle for the Crimea. On his return he pursued an army career, retiring from the army in 1871. In 1876 he was appointed professor of veterinary medicine and surgery at the Royal Agricultural College, retiring from there four years later.

In August 1883 he wrote to The Veterinarian asking for personal support (money) from the profession and subsequently set up the Mayer Fund.

The amount raised was clearly not sufficient, as the following year he wrote directly to the RCVS asking that the money he had contributed to start the college building fund be returned to him; this appeal was refused. He died in 1887.

Draft version of a memorial to be sent to the governors of the Royal Veterinary College, written by Thomas Mayer and Thomas Walton Mayer, with additions and annotations by William Youatt. The RCVS Archives team found this item in a sealed frame, and so discovered a previously hidden annotation by Youatt on the reverse (see bottom left)

George Fleming and how he protected the profession

In late 19th century, a key issue to be tackled by the RCVS was to help the public distinguish between qualified and unqualified practitioners.

This was led by the man who became president of the RCVS in 1880, George Fleming. He made it his priority to secure protection of the ‘veterinary surgeon’ title, by means of a Veterinary Surgeons Act.

The son of a farrier, Fleming was born in Glasgow in 1833 and obtained the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland Certificate (a recognised veterinary diploma at the time) in 1855. He then joined the Army Veterinary Service and served in Crimea, China, Syria and Egypt.

Fleming became more involved in the profession when he joined the RCVS council in 1868, and even more so when he founded The Veterinary Journal in 1875.

As president of the RCVS, he made a strong case for the necessity of legal protection of the title ‘veterinary surgeon’, persuading the right people, including Lord president of the Privy Council Earl Spencer, and RSPCA president Lord Aberdare, who promised to introduce the bill to the Lords.

However, RCVS council members Thomas Greaves and Matthew Harpley argued that the bill must include some recognition for unqualified men who had been making a living as ‘veterinary surgeons’ for decades and that the bill would likely not pass without this concession.

This led to the creation of a list of ‘Existing Practitioners’ to stand alongside the register. This would list unqualified men who had been practising veterinary medicine and surgery continuously for the five years previous to 27 August 1881. They would not be classed as members of the RCVS but they would be protected from the penal operations of the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1881.

Despite a last-minute objection from members of the RCVS council that it was futile and unnecessary, the bill successfully passed through parliament. Then began the work of deciding who would make it onto this new list.

Portrait of George Fleming, taken in 1871, while he was president of the Central Veterinary Society, and serving in the Army Veterinary Service

Around 1000 men paid a fee of three guineas to apply, and a committee of president Fleming and eight members of council decided that 863 were eligible. The applications typically included a statutory declaration of their five years of veterinary experience and a signed testimony by someone who believed them to be ‘a person of good moral character and integrity’.

RCVS Knowledge holds all but five of the successful applications in the RCVS archives. In some cases there are additional documents, which shed light on the popularity (or not) of a man in his community. For example, the RCVS received ‘letters of protest’ regarding John Lloyd of Montgomeryshire, accusing him of being illiterate and ‘nothing more than a travelling quack’. However, this complaint, like almost all of them, was from a member of the RCVS who could be said to have a conflict of interest. Lloyd was approved for the list by the committee. These records are a fascinating snapshot of veterinary work in Britain in the late 19th century, and a milestone in the story of the professionalisation of veterinary medicine.

The list of 863 existing practitioners gradually diminished as the men passed away. It last appeared in the 1952 register, when Henry Frost Sparrow and Martin Thomas Sparrow, both of Essex, were the final two surviving men.

Recognition of the importance of Fleming’s efforts to secure protection for the profession probably contributed to him being re-elected as president four more times. It is suggested that Fleming even covered the expenses of the Act himself. Whether this is true or not, his passion and persuasion made this happen as quickly as it did, at a time when the process of changing legislation could lose momentum and take years to come to fruition.

In 1900, shortly before his death, Fleming donated his library of more than 900 works of veterinary literature to the library of the RCVS. That work now sits in the historical collections, maintained by RCVS Knowledge.

Letter from Edward Whiskin, protesting against the application of John Lloyd to hold ‘Existing Practitioner’ status. Whiskin claims that Lloyd is an ‘illiterate person’ and ‘nothing more than a travelling quack’

Aleen Cust: first in all her classes

Aleen Cust (1868-1937) was born into a wealthy aristocratic English family in Tipperary, Ireland, before moving to England at 10 years old when her father died.

Aleen had numerous friendships with vets and probably received private education alongside her brothers, so she is likely to have been exposed to more natural sciences than girls typically were at the time.

Despite disapproval from her mother, she was helped by family friends to move to Edinburgh in 1894 to gain the entry qualifications for vet school. Cust somehow convinced William Williams, the principal of the New Veterinary College, Edinburgh, to admit her as the first woman in a British veterinary school.

She registered as a student under the pseudonym Arno Custance, possibly to prevent embarrassment to her family, specifically her mother who was now part of Queen Victoria’s household.

Cust was said to be ‘first in all her classes’ by a fellow student and gained the Gold Medal for Zoology in her first year. However, when she applied to sit the first professional examination in 1897, the RCVS was unsure how to handle this unprecedented situation, and so sought legal counsel (on the understanding that it was not bound to act on it).

Once the veterinary press reported on an application from a female vet student, the reaction from the profession was somewhat varied, and often passionate. It was widely believed that women were not fit for the veterinary profession, and that it would be improper for women to castrate animals or attend calvings and foalings. There were also concerns about increasing competition within an overcrowded profession.

Portrait of Aleen Cust, c 1927

Cust was the first female vet to the registered by the college

The counsel’s response to the RCVS was that as the Act only referred to men, a change in law would be necessary, and so Cust would need to take the RCVS to court to prove that female students had the same rights as male students. For unknown reasons, Cust did not pursue this, but Williams, who had earlier admitted her as the first female student, did sue the RCVS for damages. This action was taken through the Scottish Courts, but it was subsequently decided that Scottish law had no jurisdiction over the RCVS. This saw an end to the question of women as members of the RCVS for the time being.

Cust continued her studies but didn’t apply to sit the RCVS exams again. After finishing the course, and on a recommendation by principal Williams, she found a post as assistant to William Byrne, a vet in Roscommon, and commenced a successful career without the MRCVS post nominal. She worked as a veterinary inspector for Galway County Council from 1905 and took over Byrne’s practice after his death in 1910. During the First World War, Cust contributed to the war effort in France as part of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and then Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps.

An increase in women campaigning to join other professions finally resulted in the introduction of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919. This law meant professional organisations could no longer refuse admission to persons based on their sex or marital status, and this forced the RCVS to change.

An editorial in The Veterinary Record at the time did not think this would be a great concern to the profession, ‘for it is not likely that women will offer themselves in sufficient numbers to be of serious moment’.

But another female student, Edith Gertrude Knight, was midway through her studies at Liverpool Veterinary College, and had herself applied to sit the RCVS examination in previous years. The change in law would allow her to sit her final examinations in 1923, and she was on course to become the first legally recognised female veterinary surgeon in Britain. However, news of the changed circumstances made it to Cust, and she applied to sit the final RCVS exam in December 1922.

Finally, at age 54, Cust received her diploma from the president of the RCVS on 21 December 1922 and thus became the first legally recognised female vet in Britain. She soon afterwards retired from practice, and moved to the New Forest in Hampshire.

Certificate confirming that Aleen Cust (under the pseudonym Arno Custance) had completed her first year of study at the New Veterinary College, Edinburgh. As she was the first woman to do so, the printed form needed to be corrected from ‘Mr’ to ‘Miss’The University of Liverpool Library

Fred Bullock: A model RCVS registrar

Fred Bullock was born in Staffordshire in 1878, educated at Stafford Grammar School and then at the Université de Caen.

In 1907, he was appointed registrar and secretary of the RCVS, at a salary of £250 per year. He served the RCVS for nearly 40 years and oversaw a number of significant changes, not only at the RCVS but also within the wider profession. Upon Bullock’s death, the then RCVS president A. B. Mattinson described him as the personification of the profession.

Astutely surmising that a knowledge of the law would assist with his work as registrar, Bullock entered Gray’s Inn as a student. He took the intermediate LLB (Bachelor of Laws) in 1924 and the final LLB in 1926, being called to the Bar that same year. He completed his legal training in 1928 when he obtained the Doctorate in Law. Bullock’s thesis was later published as ‘The Law Relating to Medical, Dental and Veterinary Practice’, which, coupled with his earlier publication, ‘The Handbook for Veterinary Surgeons’, provided veterinary surgeons with a reference on aspects of the law as it related to veterinary practice.

Portrait of Fred Bullock, commissioned by the RCVS, painted by Arnold Mason, 1951. This portrait is on display in the dining room at Belgravia House

Bullock served the RCVS through changing times in the wider profession. In the early period of his tenure, there was a decline in student numbers due to concerns about the impact that increased mechanisation – with the consequent decline in the number of working horses – would have on veterinary practice as a career. As the main source of RCVS income at that time was student fees, this left the college on a precarious financial footing, which remained until the introduction of the annual registration fee in 1920.

He was also in post through two world wars. During the Second World War he oversaw the relocation of the RCVS, first to Wembley and then to Harrogate. With a much-reduced workforce, he carried the bulk of the ‘business as usual’ workload.

At the end of the war, Bullock was heavily involved in the discussions regarding the future of veterinary education and was responsible for drafting the new Veterinary Surgeons Bill. For two decades leading up to the 1948 Veterinary Surgeons Act, Bullock responded to concerns from members of the RCVS about the rise in unqualified practice, particularly carried out by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA). Bullock’s efforts to remedy the situation involved appealing to the Prince of Wales to withdraw his personal patronage of the PDSA.

As well as his legal work for the college, Bullock put his talents as a linguist and historian to full use. He took on the role of RCVS librarian, using his many connections throughout Europe to add to the collections. He collaborated with Major General Sir Frederick Smith on his four-volume Early History of Veterinary Literature, editing the fourth volume following Smith’s death.

He was involved in the organisation of both the 1914 International Veterinary Congress (which was abandoned on the second day due to the outbreak of the war) and the 1930 congress, when he served as general secretary. He also served as secretary of the Victoria Veterinary Benevolent Fund for over 30 years.

Bullock’s contribution to both the RCVS and the wider profession was recognised by the Central Veterinary Society, which made him an honorary fellow in 1929 and awarded him the ‘Victory’ Medal in 1944. On receiving this medal he said he had never sought honours for himself; he had always regarded himself as the servant of the profession in whose guardianship was the honour and dignity of the RCVS.

Testimonial from previous employer of Fred Bullock, as part of his application for the post of secretary of the RCVS in 1906

Celebrating 175 years of the RCVS

Throughout 2019, the RCVS is celebrating its 175th anniversary with a number of initiatives that both reflect on its rich history and the future of the veterinary profession.

Earlier this year, 15 April marked the 175th anniversary of the first meeting of the RCVS council, which was held after the RCVS was brought into being with its Royal Charter on 8 March 1844. Now, with digitised records, the college has showcased the original petition letters from the practitioners that drove the Royal Charter.

This feature, which examines figures from the past, has been prepared by RCVS Knowledge, the charity partner of the RCVS.

Find out more about the RCVS’ history and anniversary celebrations at:

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