Living Pictures – Vet History Podcast

This year, RCVS Knowledge were very pleased to participate in an internship scheme organised by the Kings College London History department. MA student Abbie Latham spent a few months with us, reading and transcribing Fred Smith’s Boer War letters. She also recorded the following podcast, in which she explores aspects of the letters relating to technological developments in war reporting in the nineteenth century.

Abbie’s transcriptions have been added to the Digital Collections website, underneath the digital images of the individual Boer War letters. Now it is even easier to access this fascinating resource, and read a first hand account of this devastating conflict. Click here to view the letters.


Transcription Project Completed – thanks to our incredible volunteers!

After a successful call  for volunteers back in April to help transcribe letters from the earliest days of the profession, we have now published the results of our Volunteer Transcription Project – and they are pretty amazing!

All the letters, which were written in 1840 in support of a petition that paved the way for the formation of the RCVS, and their full transcriptions can now be accessed on our website.

We were very lucky to have contributions from 51 people over six months, fully transcribing 256 handwritten letters, to make them more easily accessible for a 21st-century reader. Here we share some insights and thoughts about the process from our fantastic team of volunteers.

Some of our fantastic volunteers!

So why did people volunteer?

One reason we were able to attract such a large number of contributors was due to many veterinary staff being put on furlough during the initial lockdown period, and therefore having more time to indulge their existing historical interests.

Debbie Summers, an RVN working in Kent, and already an avid collector of Victorian postal history, told us “I was immediately interested in this project and had some skill in deciphering Victorian handwriting which I thought could be of use.” For retired small animal vet Carol Young, the project was a way “to reconnect however slightly with the profession I still missed”. Other volunteers, such as Linda Lowseck, retired former CVO of Jersey, had a more personal connection to veterinary history, as her great-grandfather qualified as vet not long after these letters were written.

However, previous historical interest was not essential. Claire Coulthard, an RVN working in the North West of England, told us she hated history at school, but during the project realised she was “becoming interested in the letter’s contents and the people who had written them.” By the end of the project, Claire had transcribed 16 letters in the collection, more than any other volunteer.

Happily, this project just seemed to scratch an itch for some people. Ginny Kunch, a veterinary practitioner from Oregon, USA, said she was “going a bit stir-crazy when I found this project online… Also, I’m a sucker for quill and ink.

Letter from Thomas Brown, Manchester, of the 6th Dragoon Guards

Learning how to transcribe

Most of the volunteers were entirely new to reading historical material, and so were eased into the task with shorter letters, (relatively) clearer handwriting, and tips and tricks about deciphering tricky words. Debbie Summers used a combination of perseverance and luck – “Sometimes [the right word] would ‘appear’ after a while of pondering, other times it was a best guess! I have definitely improved my skills in this area from working on this project!”

Soon, however, many of the participants were up and away and asking for longer and more challenging letters. It turned out that many of the vets and vet nurses who joined us had lots of experience interpreting badly written practice notes!

Alison Skipper, a vet and PhD student researching the history of health and disease in pedigree dog breeding, also employed extra-curricular wisdom in her transcribing –  “my biggest leap of insight was in transcribing Thomas Brown’s letter, where I put my knowledge of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer to good use in working out that D. Gds. meant Dragoon Guards!

Far from being put off by the challenge of difficult handwriting, this was a big part of what Claire Coulthard enjoyed about the task – “transcribing the letters was similar to solving logic puzzles. When I completed a letter it gave me that same sense of satisfaction I get once I completed puzzles”. There was also the joy of new discoveries – finding what Claire called “little 1840 ‘isms’”, such as the more elaborate valedictions, no longer used in correspondence today.

And not all the writing was terrible! Carol Gray, a postdoctoral researcher at Liverpool University, told us that she fell in love with Belfast Vet William Taylor’s handwriting, and the correct and polite use of English across all the letters she transcribed.

Letter from William Taylor, Belfast – probably the most beautiful writing in the collection!

Reflecting on the past

All the volunteers we spoke to found their experience reading these letters gave them insight into the way the profession in 1840 compares to today. For Carol Young, the “assumptions of class or gentility” seemed outdated, but she could remember “a time when we wore white coats, male vets were required to wear ties and female vets skirts, and vets were not supposed to be addressed by their Christian names!

The main concerns of the vets in 1840, and their reasons for signing Mayer’s petition, continue to speak to the profession today. Ginny Kunch transcribed a letter from “a surgeon who indicated a concern that, in essence, the guy down the road was also claiming to provide veterinary services and, by god, what were the governors planning to do to address that particular issue! And I thought, well, that’s not unlike me now, as a practising veterinarian, trying to convince some clients that the local pet shop or human chiropractor is not an equivalent substitute for a properly qualified veterinary surgeon!

Carol Gray was interested in the drive for mandatory veterinary education and noted that “Although the profession is now well protected in terms of who can practise veterinary medicine, there are some parallels with the current drive to regulate veterinary paraprofessionals.

Letter from J Martin, Newbury, and accompanying transcription by Linda Lowseck

In a (very untidy) letter from J Martin of Newbury, Linda Lowseck identified mention of ‘Foot and Mouth Disease’, long before the disease was known by this name. For Linda, this was “yet another reminder of the gigantic increase in knowledge since 1840.

The collection of letters as a whole is a fascinating snapshot of the early days of a now well-established profession, fighting for recognition. As Alison Skipper found, “there is a sense of fraternity and cooperation in these letters – a wide variety of veterinarians, scattered right across the country, coming together to support an important cause – which also reflects the best of our sense of community today.

We are enormously grateful for the commitment and contribution of our band of volunteers on this project. Now that we have a talented pool of transcribers at our disposal, we are deciding which set of archives to set them upon next. Stay tuned to the blog for information about future projects.

You can browse the letters and their transcriptions on our Vet History Digital Collections site here.


Edward Coleman lectures – a 200-year-old time capsule of veterinary science

Screenshot of digitised and transcribed version of Coleman’s introductory lecture, on the Digital Collections website

Two hundred years ago today – which was a Monday not a Friday – students attended the Introductory Lecture of the 1821/1822 session at the London Veterinary College, now known as the Royal Veterinary College.

The lecture was delivered by Edward Coleman, Professor of the College, and thanks to notes of the lecture taken by student Edmund Gabriel, we can know exactly what he taught.

Gabriel’s notes from this lecture, and over 70 others, are held in our collections and are now being digitised, transcribed, and made available to all via our Digital Collections.

Plaster bust of Edward Coleman, on display in the Members’ Room at the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons

The teacher

Edward Coleman (1766-1839) was a medical surgeon, with no veterinary training, who became head of the veterinary school in 1794, and Principal Veterinary Surgeon to the Army in 1796. He held both posts until his death in 1839. After the sudden death of the College’s first Professor, Charles Vial de St Bel, in 1793, Edward Coleman and William Moorcroft were jointly appointed to rescue the fledgling institution, which was mired in financial difficulties. Moorcroft resigned after only a few weeks, possibly due to a desire to focus on his private practice, or due to conflict with Coleman.

Reports of Coleman describe him as ‘mercurial’, but an intelligent man, and a gifted teacher. However, Frederick Smith, one of his severest critics, complained that his lack of veterinary experience, and fierce resistance to change, impeded the progress of the veterinary profession for decades. What is certain is that Coleman dominated the veterinary sphere in Britain for over 40 years, and greatly contributed to the growth of the profession in the early 19th century. Growth that would eventually lead to its reform and the creation of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.

Engraving of the Royal Veterinary College, published in The Farrier and Naturalist journal, January 1828

The course

St Bel’s original plan for the College was a 3-year course, for boarding students, with an admission fee of 20 guineas (equivalent to around £1700 today). During Coleman’s time, the course length was eventually reduced to as little as 3 to 4 months, with the expectation that students would also attend lectures on comparative anatomy and pathology at medical schools.

Students could then attend a viva voce examination by a board of prominent medical men, held quarterly at the Freemason’s Tavern. We know of at least 15 men who passed their examination in 1822, including Edmund Gabriel, the scribe of this collection of lecture notes.

Portrait of Edmund Gabriel, donated to the RCVS in 1883

The student

After graduating, Edmund Gabriel (1800-1864), seems to have remained in London, with his address listed as Fetter Lane, off Fleet Street. Later, in 1844, he became the first Secretary of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, where his distinctive sloping handwriting can be seen in the first book of Minutes of the Council.

When the RCVS first moved into 10 Red Lion Square in 1853, Gabriel resided there for a portion of his annual honorarium. In 1856, he was elected veterinary surgeon for the RSPCA. He remained Secretary until ill-health forced his resignation in 1861, and died in 1864. His obituary in The Veterinarian describes him as “active and energetic in mind, gentlemanly in his demeanour… and was respected most by those who knew him best.”

Screenshot of first page of Lecture 9 – Structure, ecomony and diseases of the bones.

The lectures

Gabriel’s notes comprise of 77 lectures, delivered from the 12th November 1821 to 19th June 1822. They almost completely relate to horses only, with the occasional mention of other species as a point of comparison. Most comparisons are made between equine and human anatomy and pathology, which is perhaps unsurprising, due to Coleman’s medical background, and the assumed medical experience of many of the students.

Extract from Frederick Smith’s list of subjects of Coleman’s Lectures

The lectures provide a fascinating snapshot of veterinary education, and general scientific knowledge, at the time. This was 10 years before Darwin sailed on HMS Beagle, and before the term ‘scientist’ was coined by William Whewell. Coleman taught that everything that happened in the body was for a purpose, even if that purpose could not yet be observed. The lectures include frequent mentions of trials and experiments carried out and the conclusions that are drawn from the results. For example, in Lecture 3, which relates to blood, Coleman speculates as to the cause of coagulation. At this stage, science is aware of red blood cells, but this was still the early days of microscopy, and it would not be possible to view platelets until higher-resolution microscopes were developed several years later. Similarly, in Lecture 4, Coleman says of glands:

“We know but little of their functions but those must be either something added or abstracted, we cannot suppose they should enter them for nothing, why do they go through them at all unless for some particular purpose”

The discovery of hormones and a wider understanding of endocrinology would arrive several decades in the future.

The transcriptions

As well as digitising all these lectures to add to the Digital Collections, we have begun the lengthy process of fully transcribing the text to make them even more accessible. Several volunteers who contributed to last year’s transcription project have gamely agreed to tackle Gabriel’s handwriting and lend their experience and veterinary expertise to help decipher more obscure anatomical terms that are a mystery to me!

Twenty of the lectures are uploaded already, and so far, five of them have transcriptions available. More will be added in the coming months – so watch this space!