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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

24 January 2007

Veterinary Arts in the 19th Century


I thought I'd talk a bit about the state of veterinary arts in the 19th century, as it was a field that was developing and growing and really coming into its own during this time. I had to research the field quite a bit for my first book, UNLACED, as the heroine, Lucy, was a 'horsey girl' learning veterinary arts second-hand from a student at the Veterinary College in London.

Not surprisingly, it was a difficult topic to research--after turning up only tiny bits and mentions, I finally resorted to visiting the college's web site (now the Royal Veterinary College, London) and finding a contact e-mail address, then e-mailing, explaining the situation and asking if there was any sort of college historian who could answer some questions for me. 'Lo and behold, they e-mailed back with the name and e-mail address of someone on staff there who could answer such queries, and a wonderful e-mail exchange followed. As if that wasn't helpful enough, those lovely people across the pond also offered to copy the pertinent pages (dealing with the college from 1794-1839) from a very hard-to-find text, The Royal Veterinary College London by Professor Ernest Cotchin, and mail them to me, which they very generously did.

I learned that, in 1817 (the year UNLACED was set) the college was at the Camden Town location (on the banks of the River Fleet), and I was able to get a good visual from drawings of the college buildings included in the pages they sent me. Approximately 70 students were enrolled at any given time, concentrating mainly on the diploma course centered around the horse. Students lived in, and the annual holiday was August 15 through September 30. Lectures (anatomy, dissection, surgery, materiae medica, chemistry and dispensing practice in line with current knowledge) were held from 9 - 1 and 4 - 7 with independent studies and reading the rest of the time. Sundays were a day off and church attendance was obligatory Practictioners were not called 'veterinarians', though the term 'veterinary arts' was used to describe their studies. Indeed, their diplomas warranted that they were "deemed competent to practice veterinary arts."
Practitioners were often disparaged as cow-doctors, cow-leeches, quacks, farriers. The term 'veterinarian' started to emerge mainly in the 1830s when "the profession" was getting fed up with their lowly position in life (and demeaning treatment from the human surgeons) and they began to think of forming a professional association.

Their practice-handbills then tended to reflect what they perceived their market needs to be--be it horse disease, racehorse injuries, cow/livestock disease. Slightly cynical, yes, but there was strong competition from the self-trained, those like my character, Lucy--who, because of her gender, was not allowed to study at the Veterinary College, despite her skills.

Indeed, the first woman 'graduate' from a predominantly large-animal course to receive a Members diploma from the College, did not do so until 1922. Yet I just read recently that the majority of veterinary school graduates are now women.

Anyway, this leads me to the question, how do you feel about heroines who aspire to break free from the sphere dictated by their time and place in society--the Scarlett "Why can't I run a lumber mill? I'm just as smart as a man" O'Hara types? Or those like my Lucy who could never actually study veterinary arts, but longed to?

Personally, I like them--but think the key to making them believable characters is making sure that the other characters' reaction to them remains in keeping with the times--i.e., "Scandalous! Scarlett, running a lumber mill as if she were a man?" and not "Scarlett running a lumber mill? Oh, how lovely!"

4 Comments:

Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Ohhh, a topic so near and dear to my heart, Kristina! Wonderful post, IMO. ;-)

I love historical heroines who "worked" out of their box---a woman veterinarian in the 1800's was just that. I read UNLACED---I just had to of course! Lovely!

Ya know, we have come so far but not so fast. Your are right about women being the majority of veterinary graduates nowadays. My class (LSU, 1985) was the first ever class to graduate 50% women (from that vet school). Doesn't seem so long ago.....

Nowadays, male applicants get special consideration due to their rarity and the profession feeling it needs to add some "balance."

Gee, women really set things off kilter, aye?

5:16 PM  
Blogger Kristina Cook said...

Kathrynn, when I wrote my post, I totally forgot you were a vet and 'horse person'! You made my day with your comment about UNLACED! :o)

My sister is an equestrian, and one of my best friends a vet...and when I conceived of the idea for the book, it occurred to me that for many, being a vet isn't about having a job...it's almost a calling. And what would a woman--particularly a 'lady'--with that 'calling' have done in Regency England? Obviously, she couldn't formally study veterinary arts, nor could she hang up a shingle and call herself a practitioner. But I kept thinking how awful it would be to love horses, to have such natural abilities 'healing' them, and not be able to pursue such activities without censure.

Can you even imagine?!

5:47 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I don't mind when she has aspirations and she handles them within the realm of reason (as your heroine did in UNLACED!). It does bother me when a well-bred woman refuses to marry because she wants to be a "insert unrealistic goal here". Yes, I'd rather martyr myself and die as a pox infested whore in a gutter somewhere than marry that nice vicar who loves me. Ugh! Women who think outside the box, good. Women who just don’t seem to think . . . not so good.

3:03 PM  
Anonymous Janette Kenny said...

Personally, I love reading about and writing unconventional heroines. But as Kalen said, I want their motives to be believable for the times. :)

In my first novel, my British heroine wants to stay in America so she can have freedom to raise her prize thoroughbreds. The heroine of my second novel starts the first dude ranch as a means to keep her land, and also give women a place for a retreat. Both stories are set in the late 1890s, and my research proved both scenarios were possible.

8:21 AM  

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