As women became recognised members of the profession, they began to have influence in veterinary politics. Two of the most memorable of those women are Olga Uvarov and Mary Brancker who, respectively, became the first female presidents of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) and the British Veterinary Association (BVA). Alongside Aleen Cust, Joan Joshua and Madeleine Sheppard, these two women played a significant role in shaping the veterinary profession into what it is today.
Olga Nikolaevna Uvarov (1910-2001) had the most dreadful start in life. Born in Tsarist Russia, Olga was seven years old when the revolution began. Her father then sent her out of Moscow with her mother and three brothers; their mother died of typhoid on the way and their father was executed by a revolutionary tribunal. Olga and her brothers survived in their grandfather’s house for what was described as horrific months in one room, surrounded by starvation and shooting.
Their uncle Boris Uvarov, an eminent entomologist, had emigrated to England in 1920. He sent aid to the children and then found he could evacuate them, but the cost was high; he could only afford to pay for one and he chose Olga. She was escorted from Moscow to Estonia by the American Red Cross and arrived in England by ship in 1923. Labelled “Orphan No.7”, Olga was underweight, hairless, without fingernails and unwell (probably with malaria).
Veterinary practice and research
Olga was raised in her uncle’s family, and she always had a great regard for him and his scientific work (he was elected as Fellow of the Royal Society). He was the influence that drove her to emulate his eminence. Deciding that she wanted to become a veterinary surgeon, she had to wait until she was 21 and “in control of her own decisions”. She qualified from the Royal Veterinary College in 1938 and first worked in mixed practice as an assistant. In 1944 she decided to have her own practice and put up her plate in south-west London. This was successful, but for health reasons she sold the practice in 1953 and took a position in the Clinical Research Department of Glaxo.
Olga soon realised that this was where she was happy: the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge. Research was productive at that time and she worked on many investigations, including penicillin cerates for bovine mastitis, cortisone in skin diseases, betamethasone’s veterinary uses and griseofulvin for ringworm treatment.
With the introduction of the 1968 Medicines Act she took a legal course to understand how it would affect product use literature, advertising and clinical trials
With the introduction of the 1968 Medicines Act she took a legal course to understand how it would affect product use literature, advertising and clinical trials. In 1967 she became head of the Glaxo Veterinary Advisory Department, finally retiring in 1970 after 17 years with the company and having made a significant contribution. Between 1971 and 1978 Olga worked part-time as the BVA Technical Information Officer.
Veterinary politics and recognition
Olga became involved in veterinary politics with one aim: the enhancement of education and the status of her profession. She was a member of BVA Council for over 25 years and a member of RCVS Council from 1968, being elected president in 1976, the first woman to hold the presidency. She also became president of the Society of Women Veterinary Surgeons, Royal Society of Medicine’s Comparative Medicine Section, Association of Veterinary Teachers and Research Workers and Central Veterinary Society. Olga served on the Veterinary Products Committee from 1971 to 1978, and the Medicines Commission between 1978 and 1982. She had some 50 scientific publications to her credit.
She was a member of BVA Council for over 25 years and a member of RCVS Council from 1968, being elected president in 1976, the first woman to hold the presidency
Her work was recognised by the award of Fellowship of the RCVS; an honorary DSc by Guelph University, Canada; Fellowship of the RVC; and the Victory Medal of the Central Veterinary Society. In 1977 she received the CBE and in 1983 the DBE, the first woman veterinarian to receive the honour.
Personality and later life
Dame Olga Uvarov had many outstanding characteristics; she had a serious approach to life and considered that correct behaviour was essential at all times. Always well groomed and neatly dressed, she had a natural dignity. Olga had an independent, original mind – she eschewed the use of the word “vet” and never spoke of “drugs”: they were always “medicines”. She was an excellent public speaker and when she adopted a cause, such as the humane use of animals in research, she pursued it relentlessly and fearlessly. Olga was granted citizenship and was very proud to be British.
She was an excellent public speaker and when she adopted a cause, such as the humane use of animals in research, she pursued it relentlessly and fearlessly
I knew her for many years, initially when she was in practice and regularly attended Central Veterinary Society meetings. She had one objective even then: to learn. At almost every meeting she asked questions, always valuable, often penetrating, and was always polite even if she totally disagreed with the speaker. Later, when we were both working in the Glaxo Group, she would visit me and our research team, always with notes taken and questions asked and always with helpful observations.
She never married and lived to be 91. I still have her last letter, her neat handwriting now difficult to read, wishing me well and trusting that I would keep learning and always improve myself! Olga was a remarkable, kind and intelligent woman who, after a terrible start, led an exemplary life
Winifred Mary Brancker (1914-2010) was born in London, the youngest of three children. She had wanted to be a farmer, but as this was not possible chose veterinary medicine as she would be close to animals. She entered the Royal Veterinary College in 1932 and qualified in 1937.
Small animal and non-domesticated practice
Mary began practice life as a locum and was asked by Harry Steele-Bodger of Tamworth, where she had “seen practice”, to cover for him while on holiday. Shortly afterwards he offered her an assistantship; in 1944 she became a partner in the Sutton Coldfield branch, which she then acquired in 1950 on Steele-Bodger’s death. She worked in the same practice until retirement in 1984.
In her mainly small animal practice, Mary had an increasing interest in non-domesticated species. Two friends had each bought a chimpanzee; later they founded Twycross Zoo and Mary became their veterinary surgeon. In 2007, Twycross Zoo dedicated “The Mary Brancker Waterways and Borneo Longhouse”, a walk-through exhibit of waterfowl, Borneo birds and turtles, with educational material throughout. Mary became the founding president of the Twycross Zoo Association; she was a founding member when the British Veterinary Zoological Society was formed in 1961, and, later, a founder of the Veterinary Invertebrate Society.
Mary had an increasing interest in non-domesticated species. Two friends had each bought a chimpanzee; later they founded Twycross Zoo and Mary became their veterinary surgeon
Fish farming became an interest and Mary was sponsored to visit Scottish fish farms. She then obtained funding from the Nuffield Foundation to establish the Department of Aquatic Pathobiology at Stirling University, later renamed the internationally known Institute of Aquaculture. The university awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1966.
Election to BVA Council and beyond
She had an early introduction to the British Veterinary Association through Harry Steele-Bodger; she became a member, and was then elected to BVA Council in 1952. In 1967, Mary was elected president – the first woman to hold this office. Her presidential year was difficult because a particularly serious foot-and-mouth disease outbreak occurred; Mary became the pivotal figure in the profession’s role in managing the problem. She was awarded the OBE in 1969 in recognition of her contributions. She served on RCVS Council from 1971 to 1984 and also became president of the British Veterinary Nursing Association in 1984.
Her presidential year was difficult because a particularly serious foot-and-mouth disease outbreak occurred; Mary became the pivotal figure in the profession’s role in managing the problem
Mary Brancker was recognised for her lifetime of contributions to veterinary medicine: awarded Honorary Fellowship of the RCVS in 1977; elected life member of BVA in 1981; awarded the Dalrymple-Champneys Cup in 1985; and awarded the BVA’s Chiron Award in 2005, for “outstanding contributions to veterinary science”. Her OBE was upgraded in 2000 when she was appointed CBE “for services to animal health and welfare to women in the veterinary profession”; afterwards, she said that that was the proudest moment of her life.
In November 2009, I asked Mary if she would speak to a meeting of the Veterinary History Society about her veterinary life. She accepted at once. As I knew she was 95 I offered help with transport and accommodation to make her visit to London easier. She refused, arrived on time, spoke well, answered many questions, stayed late and left on her own to catch the train home: quite remarkable.
In 2005, the Royal Veterinary College opened and named Mary Brancker House, a student hall of residence in Kentish Town, close to the college’s London campus. With accommodation for 182 students, it is a fitting and lasting tribute to a quite exceptional woman.
In the many obituaries following her death in 2010, the words of one summarised Mary Brancker: “she was full of life, fun, knowledge, humour, grace, warmth, curiosity, intellect and respect…”.