The passing of the 1919 equality legislation opened the way for women to enter the veterinary profession with Aleen Cust being the first to gain admission to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS). When she died in 1937, 15 years later, there were only about 60 women on the Register. Employment opportunities were poor; these were the post-depression years and the economy was slow to recover, and there were also changes in veterinary practice. Equine work had declined, the livestock industry was slow to accept veterinary help and small animal practice was in its infancy.
Women, however, began to enter the different areas of veterinary work. Few of these tried to be leaders or influencers but they demonstrated their ability and competence in a wide variety of veterinary occupations. In this article, some of the more obvious names from the 27-year period between 1923 and 1950 are identified.
The first veterinary women on the RCVS Register
The second woman to sign the RCVS Register was Edith Knight (Liverpool, 1923). She must be remembered as the first woman to be awarded a veterinary degree (BVSc), as the Liverpool vet school was at that time a part of the university.
She first worked in cattle practice as an assistant and was well accepted by farmers. Later she married E L Taylor, another Liverpool graduate, who became Britain’s leading parasitologist. Edith then established her own successful small animal practice and eventually sold it in the late 1930s to Marjorie Jordan (London, 1931) as her family increased. I met Edith once; she impressed me as both an empathetic and a talented person.
Kathleen Lowndes … became involved in veterinary politics and was elected in 1965 as the first woman president of the Veterinary Medical Association of Ireland
In the early days of women enrolling as veterinary students, the most receptive was the Dublin school. Of the first 12 women’s names in the Register after Aleen Cust, five were from the Dublin school (Liverpool saw four; London, two; Glasgow, one – Edinburgh finally entered the list in 1949). Of the Dublin group, there were two key figures. Kathleen Lowndes née Spears (Dublin, 1930) was recorded as “working in bacteriology” in Dublin, but little background information is available. She later became involved in veterinary politics and was elected in 1965 as the first woman president of the Veterinary Medical Association of Ireland. She hosted a dinner in Dublin that year with her guests of honour, Alistair Steele-Bodger, president of the British Veterinary Association, and Charles Haughey, Irish Minister of Agriculture. The other, Kathrine Lamb née Hueffer (Dublin, 1927), is recorded as establishing her own practice, marrying a recognised artist and living in Connemara.
Veterinary women in education
Sir Frederick Hobday had championed the cause of women in the profession, and when he became principal of the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) in October 1927, he soon welcomed Averil Greener as his first female student. Averil qualified in 1930 and joined the staff of the Research Institute for Animal Pathology (RIAP) alongside the RVC, though she was listed as a “temporary assistant”. In 1933, the word “temporary” was dropped. In 1936 she was awarded a diploma in bacteriology (Dip Bact) and became demonstrator in the pathology department, where she was joined by Audrey Kemp (London, 1935). Shortly afterwards, Averil married and became Mrs Seymour-Smith, resigned her position and seems to have changed her career: she should be remembered as the first woman veterinarian to be active in veterinary teaching and research.
Myra Bingham (London, 1938) became a staff member of the RVC as demonstrator in the pathology department, and by 1941 was also listed as research assistant in the RIAP
Myra Bingham (London, 1938) became a staff member of the RVC as demonstrator in the pathology department, and by 1941 was also listed as research assistant in the RIAP. Later, she cooperated with her husband Professor George Clarke as co-author of a book on veterinary toxicology. She is remembered as being the second woman to be awarded the fellowship of the RCVS (FRCVS). Another early female teacher was Isobel Burton (Glasgow, 1940) who is listed in 1942 as a junior assistant at the Glasgow school.
Veterinary women in research
The Weybridge Laboratory of the Ministry of Agriculture began to employ women; Katherine Sanderson (London, 1935) was involved in parasite research, in particular sheep nematodes, until she retired to get married in 1942.
Also working at Weybridge during the 1939 to 1945 war years was Mary Maclay née Weddell (Glasgow, 1939). She was seconded to work at Weybridge by her employer, the pharmaceutical company May & Baker. Her assignment was to develop veterinary applications for the newly synthesised sulphonamide derivatives.
[Connie Ford] specialised in infertility research in cattle, conducting work for which she was awarded an MBE in 1970
Another woman employed by the Ministry of Agriculture was Connie Ford (London, 1933). Initially, Connie had run her own small animal practice in London, but when the Second World War began she signed on for the Scottish Land Army until 1943 when she joined the UK government’s Veterinary Investigation Service. She specialised in infertility research in cattle, conducting work for which she was awarded an MBE in 1970. Connie is best remembered for her carefully researched biography of Aleen Cust – Aleen Cust, Veterinary Surgeon (1990) – whom she had met as a student; she was awarded the J T Edwards Memorial Award by the RCVS in 1922 for this work. She also wrote several small books of verse and poetry, including Veterinary Ballads and Other Poems (1973).
Veterinary women in small animal practice
Most newly qualified women veterinary surgeons went into urban small animal practice, usually on their own, and were generally successful. Of interest is Sheila Stainton (London, 1941) who took over the practice (in Church Street, Kensington, London) of her father, Harold Stainton, who had initially been in the practice as partner with Frederick Hobday. What had been a leading horse practice in a good area of London became a well-established small animal practice. Sheila was known as a good mentor to female students, not just in veterinary practice but also in understanding veterinary life: she was a highly competent practitioner.
Most newly qualified women veterinary surgeons went into urban small animal practice, usually on their own, and were generally successful
Betty Sugden (London, 1944) was in practice in London with her husband. They emigrated to Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe), and opened a joint practice. I had to visit Salisbury in 1957 and took time to visit Betty. She described her life in African practice and the new problems and interesting clinical cases encountered; I think she could have claimed to be the first British woman veterinary surgeon to be in small animal practice in Africa.
Veterinary women as specialists
By the end of the 1940s, women had shown that they could handle all the differing veterinary patients, problems and tasks. They began to develop as specialists in specific subjects. Barbara Weaver (London, 1949) who became a leader in veterinary anaesthesia working from the Bristol Veterinary School, and PhyllisCroft(London, 1950) who studied canine neurological conditions are examples of veterinary women as specialists.
Veterinary women in alternative careers
Two women who signed the RCVS Register in 1935 used their veterinary qualifications to follow different careers. Kathleen Russell Kelly (Liverpool) joined a major animal feed company and became their veterinary advisor. Kathleen was a most dynamic and highly competent woman who was both well connected and unforgettable. She instructed me one evening in her home on how to make good sloe gin!
After signing the Register, Phyllis Peake … acquired a nursing qualification (SRN) and wrote a chapter for McCunn’s edition of Hobday’s Surgical Diseases of the Dog and Cat (1947), the first serious and instructive contribution to veterinary nursing
After signing the Register, Phyllis Peake (London) later acquired a nursing qualification (SRN) and wrote a chapter for McCunn’s edition of Hobday’s Surgical Diseases of the Dog and Cat (1947), the first serious and instructive contribution to veterinary nursing.
What was the situation in Europe?
In continental Europe, women had been listed as veterinary graduates from 1889. The first two were in the eastern countries: Stephania Kruszevska from Poland, and V Dobrovoljskia, who is recorded as having practised in Odessa County, Ukraine. There is also a record of a Maria Kapcewitsch, said to have been from a wealthy Ukrainian/Russian family working at the Alfort Veterinary School, Paris, in 1896.
In continental Europe, women had been listed as veterinary graduates from 1889
Gradually veterinary schools improved their courses and training and in 1915 Agnes Sjöborg, a Finnish woman, graduated from Berlin. Next came Zoe Draganescu from Bucharest, Romania.
Other European countries accepted women veterinarians slowly: Germany in 1924, Italy in 1927, the Netherlands in 1930, Switzerland in 1938, Austria in 1939, Denmark in 1940, Portugal in 1941 and France in 1942.
An international evolution
Outside Europe, records are difficult to find as veterinary education only really began to develop in the 1920s.
The USA led with Mignon Nicholson graduating in 1903 from a private school, The McKillip Veterinary College, Chicago (McKillip was a graduate of the Toronto vet school, Canada). Two women graduated in 1910: Eleanor McGrath from the private Chicago Veterinary College (owned by Joseph Hughes, a Glasgow graduate) and Florence Kimball from Cornell University (the veterinary school was headed by James Law, an Edinburgh graduate). Florence was the first US woman to hold a DVM, while Eleanor McGrath became the first female member of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
In Australia, Belle Reid was the first veterinary woman graduate, in Melbourne in 1906, and in South Africa it was Jean Alison Morice, in Pretoria in 1927.
Almost all of these early veterinary women went into clinical practice. While it is important to remember the leaders, it is just as important to remember the female “foot-soldiers” of the profession who, frequently working in difficult economic times, established themselves in solo practices to the benefit of their patients and communities.