One of the most significant features of the veterinary profession today is the role played by women – comprising an increasing share of the practising profession and the major contribution to student numbers.
Two events were responsible for this change. First, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, making all professions open to women members, and second Miss Aleen Cust, who completed her veterinary training in 1900 but was refused entry to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) until 1922. This is the year to remember this remarkable woman.
Who was Aleen Cust?
Aleen Isabel Cust was born in 1868 to parents Sir Leopold and Lady Isabel Cust who lived in Ireland, then a part of Britain. They were an aristocratic family and Aleen was raised and educated in an affluent household with servants, land and horses, which she loved. In 1878, Leopold inherited the baronetcy, but died a couple of months later. The family moved to England and Aleen became the ward of Major Shallcross Fitzherbert Widdrington, as her father had designated in his will.
She soon began to spend most of her time with the Widdrington family in Northumberland, and Shallcross appeared to have been a good guardian and mentor. Aleen decided she wanted to be a veterinary surgeon, but her family did not approve as it would affect Lady Cust’s social standing; so, she became estranged from her mother and siblings.
In 1896, using the surname Custance, Aleen took initial education at Edinburgh University and then enrolled at Professor William Williams’s New Veterinary College. She was an outstanding student, but her application to take the mandatory RCVS examinations was refused as she was a woman. The legal background for this is now seen as dubious and devious. However, she completed the course with success.
She was an outstanding student, but her application to take the mandatory RCVS examinations was refused as she was a woman. The legal background for this is now seen as dubious and devious
Unable to practise in England, she was offered an assistantship in Roscommon, Ireland, by William Byrne, MRCVS. When Aleen joined his practice, her arrival was said to have “caused consternation and scandalised the local priesthood”, but she had veterinary expertise and by never using the “veterinary surgeon” title avoided direct RCVS confrontation: she was not in England which was their main concern.
Becoming known in the veterinary community
Aleen soon established her reputation. She understood horses and could examine them expertly, and Ireland was the horse country of the British Isles. She developed a close relationship with Willie Byrne, but after a few years moved and started her own practice, though not in competition with Byrne.
In 1905, she went to the 8th International Veterinary Congress in Budapest as one of a party of six from Britain. Two of the others were John MacFadyean and Stewart Stockman, two of the most vocal deniers to the entry of women to the profession on the RCVS Council. Also present was Frederick Hobday, a leading London practitioner who became a good friend and supporter of Aleen. Following the congress there was a tour of the Hungarian Royal Estates and horse breeding farms, which Aleen photographed. On returning to Ireland her pictures were published in the Veterinary Record. She also used the images as lantern slides for a talk in Dublin to Irish veterinary surgeons and another in Roscommon; Frederick Hobday subsequently used them for a talk he gave to the Central Veterinary Society in London.
Aleen succeeded in also being appointed as veterinary inspector by County Galway Council in 1906. This was denied by the RCVS due to Aleen’s lack of professional recognition, but the RCVS eventually accepted the situation
Aleen succeeded in also being appointed as veterinary inspector by County Galway Council in 1906. This was denied by the RCVS due to Aleen’s lack of professional recognition, but the RCVS eventually accepted the situation. She was given the title “inspector” rather than the full designation, and undertook the statutory veterinary work for the county until 1915. The RCVS took no action.
In 1910, Byrne died suddenly; he had been a great friend and always supported Aleen. Taking over his practice and moving to Athleague, she established herself as the leading veterinarian in the area. By now she had a fine house, servants, horses and a good reputation. The practice prospered: she was a good surgeon and expert at equine castration (which scandalised the local priest) and a strong proponent of animal welfare.
Aleen developed her social life with the local gentry, joining in fishing expeditions, shooting game and hunting, and was present at local fairs and fetes. When on practice calls, she frequently rode a white stallion and dressed in a long skirt, a tunic top and a man’s hat. Living to a strict routine, she started work early but at seven o’clock every evening was in a long gown being served dinner by her servants.
Aleen was now known to the veterinary community in Ireland and England; she attended congresses, her photographs were regularly seen in the veterinary media and she addressed meetings
Aleen was now known to the veterinary community in Ireland and England; she attended congresses, her photographs were regularly seen in the veterinary media and she addressed meetings. In 1909 she devised and advertised the innovative “Cust Rope Release Hobbles” for casting horses: an essential procedure used by all equine practitioners. She had become well recognised.
First World War
The outbreak of war in 1914 changed everything. The Army needed horses and Aleen helped in the selection of these in Ireland, then she decided to help directly. In 1915 she joined the Ladies Ambulance Service and the YMCA staff, then, in a rather Cust way, she took her car and went to France to be based in Abbeville where by coincidence (or by planning) her friend, now Major, Frederick Hobday was in charge of Veterinary Hospital No. 22. As a competent clinician and fluent in French and German, she was almost certainly helping Hobday. When later Hobday moved to Italy, Aleen is suddenly recorded with the YMCA and then in the Rouen Veterinary Laboratory. Her time in France is poorly documented.
At the end of the war in 1918 Aleen was in need of rest and recuperation. Ireland had changed and her idyllic pre-war life no longer existed; the Easter rising of 1916 and the following years of conflict meant she was no longer welcome. Selling her house, property and practice, she moved to the New Forest in Hampshire. She was now 56 years old and in declining health.
Becoming an MRCVS
In 1919, Parliament passed the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act allowing women entry to the professions. This was not welcomed by RCVS Council, but they had to comply. Aleen applied, and so, after 22 years of being excluded, she gained her MRCVS in 1922. She was the first woman on the Register, but there does not appear to have been any apology from the College for the 22-year delay: they had not wanted to allow women to join. The profession, however, generally welcomed her.
In 1919, Parliament passed the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act allowing women entry to the professions … Aleen applied, and so, after 22 years of being excluded, she gained her MRCVS in 1922. She was the first woman on the Register
Aleen Cust’s later years and personal life
Aleen now lived a quiet life in Hampshire. She had servants and, as ever, changed for dinner each evening, but suffered poor health. She went on winter cruises to the Caribbean Islands and South America. Jamaica became a favourite place and in 1936 she planned a three-month riding holiday round the island. Arriving on 5 January 1937 she stayed with a veterinary colleague for a few days, but on 29 January suffered an acute heart attack and died.
Her personal life is not discussed here: she had several known suitors and one relationship that produced children who had to be adopted. One has to feel a certain sadness for her later years and the lonely end to the life of a quite exceptional woman.
Aleen Cust’s legacy
Aleen Cust has to be remembered not just because she was the first woman admitted to the RCVS and able to use the title “veterinary surgeon”, but because of the 22 years she was denied because she was a woman. With time, attitudes and society changed, but the RCVS Council did not want women in the profession and became increasingly isolated from the majority of their membership. When Aleen Cust was allowed to join there was a welcome for her from the profession.
Aleen Cust has to be remembered not just because she was the first woman admitted to the RCVS and able to use the title “veterinary surgeon”, but because of the 22 years she was denied because she was a woman
As an individual, Aleen Cust was remarkable. In a time when it was difficult for women to gain their place in society, she just went ahead and earned it. She not only overcame multiple obstacles in her life but demonstrated a competence and proficiency that surpassed many of her male colleagues. As well as this, she was an early proponent of the place of the veterinary profession in animal welfare. She was an exceptional trailblazer, figurehead and mentor to the many women who have now entered the profession.