One of the professions youngest and brightest ornaments

Recently there has been another of those coincidences that those of us who work in libraries love.  Two quite separate enquiries which end up having something – or in this case someone – in common.

The first enquiry was from a researcher who wanted to look at The quarterly journal of veterinary science in India and army animal management and the second from someone who was researching James McCall, founder of Glasgow Veterinary College.

John Henry Steel

John Henry Steel

The connection? John Henry Steel – who was the co-founder of the journal and who had a medal named after him which was awarded to McCall in 1899.

As is usual when this happens curiosity got the better of me and I had to find out more..

John Henry Steel FRCVS (1855-1891) followed his father into the veterinary profession, graduating from the London Veterinary College in 1875.  After a brief spell in the army he took up a post as Demonstrator of Anatomy at the London College where he remained for five years, before resigning when the professorship, which he had been promised, was abolished.

He re-entered the army and, in 1882, went to serve in India, which was to be the scene of his most notable achievements. Upon arrival, he “was immediately impressed by the utter want, outside the Army, of anything approaching Veterinary Science” and set about rectifying the situation.

One of his first moves was to establish, in 1883, The quarterly journal of veterinary science in India and army animal management.  This journal, which he co-founded with Frederick Smith, allowed vets to share information and record  progress in treatments etc.

Secondly, in 1886, he established a veterinary college in Bombay so that the population could be “educated in veterinary matters”.

Sadly the severe mental and physical strain of running the journal and the College took its toll and he was taken ill, returning to England in 1888.  Against the advice of doctors, he went back to India after a few months and involved himself fully in the life of Bombay, taking up the reins at the College again and becoming a Fellow of the University and a JP.

His health did not improve and, seemingly aware of his imminent death, he wrote an editorial for the journal, dated October 1890, titled ‘Cui Bono’ (to whose benefit?).  It starts:

“To every conscientious worker there arrive times of introspection when the questions arise to him what has been the outcome of my efforts?”

Steel then proceeds to assess his life’s work and in particular to question the usefulness of the Journal and whether it was worth the “at times laborious work”.

He feels

“it has succeeded in enlarging the mind of the public and profession on matters veterinary…[and has] enabled men working on the same subjects… to co-ordinate their work and results”

and if at all possible it must continue

“Considering how things were before the Quarterly, considering the work our Journal has been enabled to do…we have decided to continue its production”

Announcement of closure of journal

Announcement of closure of journal

Sadly this was not to be and  Steel wrote an announcement  stating that owing to severe illness he was having to leave India and that the Journal will no longer be continued after December 1890.  The publisher then adds to the end of the announcement, which was distributed with the last issue, “J H Steel, Esq …died at Bombay on Thursday the 8th”.

He was  just short of his 36th birthday.

The three page obituary in the Veterinary Record (31 January 1891), from which the title of this post is taken, and the fact that the RCVS instituted a medal in his honour testifies to the high regard in which he was held by the profession.

The College which he founded, the Journal and his books on diseases of the ox, dog, elephant, sheep, and camel and on equine relapsing fever remain as his lasting legacy.

5 replies
  1. Jess Fox
    Jess Fox says:

    Hi Clare,
    I am related to John Henry Steel; he was the brother of my Great, Great Grandfather, Major Edwin Bedford Steel, RAMC (1871-1914); I have been researching my family history, on & off, for many years now & I’m always coming across great new details!

    In this instance, specifically a new fantastic photo of my Great, Great, Great Uncle! I’ve seen 2 other photos of him, but they were poorer quality/resolution, (here; & here; ) This one I’ve certainly never seen before; I can also see a definite similarity here to Edwin indeed. 🙂 I love old photos! 🙂

    Edwin was some what younger, in fact I think the youngest of the 9 children, born between 1953 & 1871, of my Great, Great, Great Grandparents, Lt Col Charles Edward Steel (of the RAVC; student at the Royal Veterinary College circa 1849 to 1852, Camden Town) & Frances Steel (nee Bedford), ; Edwin was born in 1871, was Educated at Rugby & Trinity College, Dublin; he spent a lot of time in India himself, so much so his first child was born there in 1900 at Dehra Dun. His youngest son was born back in England; Christopher Bedford Steel (1907-1943) was my Great Grandfather, a bit of a character, a sort of black sheep of the family in later life, indeed!

    I remain as fascinated by family history research as I did when I first started ‘digging’ in October, 2004; I’d love to find out anything else you may have come across when researching John Henry Steel & also, I’d be very interested to learn of anything you came across regarding his father, Veterinary Surgeon Charles E. Steel. I know he spent lots of time in India & Ireland, & edited some journals, helped John Henry set up the journal & was a tutor/lecturer back in the UK in the 1900’s; any further details about him would be most interesting to discover!

    Do email me; I look forward to hearing from you,
    All the best,
    Jessica S. Fox 🙂

  2. James L. Hevia, Professor of History, University of Chicago
    James L. Hevia, Professor of History, University of Chicago says:

    Dear Clare,
    I’ve recently begun research on the journal and was curious about why it ended publication abruptly. Thanks for answering that for me. I wonder if you can tell me your sources on Steel and also if you know of any information on the two other editors of the journal at its inception — Charles Steel and Fred Smith, both of whom were also veterinary surgeons?

    • Clare
      Clare says:

      The sources I used for the post were the obituary in the Veterinary Record cited in the post Veterinary Record (31 January 1891) and the records we hold on him in our archives – these are either related to his registration with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons or in relation to the medal instituted in his honour after his death.

      Charles Steel was JH Steels father. His RCVS Record card gives the following information:
      Graduated London 1851,
      Became RCVS Fellow 1877
      died April
      Served with the 12th Lancers

      We hold Frederick Smith’s archive here at the RCVS – further information be found here


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