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‘James Herriot is not responsible for the profession’s current woes’
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  1. Lewis Grant

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Lewis Grant is the senior vice president of the Veterinary Public Health Association.

I feel, along with my good friend Jim Wight, the son of James Herriot creator, Alf Wight, that James Herriot is far from responsible for our profession’s current woes.

I knew Jim Wight before the James Herriot books were published, which of course led to the world-wide admiration for our wonderful profession.

When I worked in Lockerbie in the late 60s, Jim was a frequent visitor to our practice as the best friend of Ian Sloan, the other assistant in the practice at the time. One weekend he casually said to me ‘My father’s been writing a daft book.’ He produced a preproduction version of ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ and loaned it to me for the weekend, saying ‘Mind Lewis, I need it back, it’s the only copy we have! Tell me what you think of it.’

Of course I was completely captivated by Alf’s writing style and acute observation of general practice all those years ago. Reading his first book had given me a flavour of what working in the Yorkshire Dales would be like, as his vivid descriptions conjured up a picture of an area I soon was to become familiar with. But little did I suspect that two or three short years later, at the age of 26, I would be running one of Herriot’s neighbouring practices in nearby Masham, my boss having suddenly died after I had been there for only six weeks.

For practice partners in the area, we regularly had what we called ‘practitioners meetings’, held in a local hostelry, which were studiously attended by both Alf and Donald Sinclair (aka Siegfried Farnon). This was in the 70s and early 80s; both Alf and Donald were still active in their practice but, of course, by then the Herriot books were the stuff of legend.

I was always struck by the gentleness, humility and charm of a man who did his best as a practitioner of his own time, as indeed I know that Jim and other veterinarians of my own age did as well. We wholeheartedly agree with Jim that some of the recent James Herriot coverage in the veterinary press is an insult to the memory of a man who did so much for the image of our profession. One of Alf’s worries when his practice gained such fame was that it would unfairly attract clients to Thirsk, to the detriment of his fellow vets in the surrounding area.

Modern veterinarians would learn a lot if they could be transported back to those times for a week or so

With regards to being old fashioned and out of date, one thing that myself and Jim learned from these older practitioners was their admirable ability to be able to diagnose conditions without resorting to, for example, blood tests and scans, that veterinarians today have at their disposal and I think take for granted. I would hope that some of that skill rubbed off on me when I was running a general practice, and I believe that modern veterinarians would learn a lot if they could be transported back to those times for a week or so.

As for not charging his clients, this is indeed a myth, and although we did not make a fortune, we did earn a comfortable living. We sometimes, as business people, did not get paid for whatever reason, but it certainly was not what we intended.

We are all aware that things move on, but there are some things today that we could well do without. I remember our jurisprudence lectures in first year where the lecturer warned us that, as veterinarians, we could be sued, on average, possibly twice in our career. If only it was still only twice today!

One time when I was seeing practice, a prime bullock owned by the practice’s ‘best client’ died when it was under the care of the vet, which resulted in the vet spending the whole night worrying what the client would do. Next morning, among the bottles of milk on the doorstep, there were two bottles of malt whisky and a note that said ‘No hard feelings, we all get it wrong sometimes.’

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