Women who shaped the veterinary profession: Joan Joshua and Madeleine Sheppard - Veterinary Practice
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Women who shaped the veterinary profession: Joan Joshua and Madeleine Sheppard

Joan Joshua and Madeleine Sheppard were two women who made notable contributions to veterinary practice throughout their careers, shaping the profession into what it is today

Celebrating the women who shaped the veterinary profession: 2 of 4

Following Aleen Cust’s admittance to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons Register, as discussed in the first article in this series, there were an increasing number of women veterinary students, first at the Liverpool school, then in Dublin, and then in London when Sir Frederick Hobday became principal in 1927. The post-depression years of the 1930s were a difficult time for the profession but some notable female personalities emerged. Two of these women who made the greatest contribution to veterinary practice were Joan Joshua and Madeleine Sheppard.

Joan Olive Joshua

FIGURE (1) Joan Olive Joshua (1912-1993), image courtesy of the RCVS Historical Collection

Joan Joshua (1912-1993) had a difficult childhood, with the death of her father and the resultant financial difficulties contributing significantly. As there were no student grants, she was unable to enter the Royal Veterinary College until she was 21 years old. However, she was an exemplary scholar and won subject and centenary medals as the best overall student in her fourth and final years.

Joan graduated in 1938 and spent a year at the Beaumont Animal Hospital before starting her own practice at her mother’s house in Finchley, just before the outbreak of war in 1939. This remained her solo practice base until 1962. Clinical practice was her element. She had positive diagnostic opinions, but did not like to have them questioned! An obituarist wrote “she expressed her opinions in her own uninhibited style, sometimes with an authoritarianism that was not popular”, while another wrote “Joan was never equivocal”.

Advocating for women practitioners

She had a strong interest in the place that women occupied in the profession, which was triggered by what she saw as sexual discrimination in 1941 during the war. The Ministry of Labour began to call up women veterinary surgeons for essential war work while men were considered in a reserved occupation. When Joan received her notice, she reacted “with the belligerent vigour that was to characterise the whole of her professional life, she sorted out this sexist discrimination by challenging the Ministry of Labour in person. Within 10 days she had the position rectified with the assurance that this would not recur.”

She had a strong interest in the place that women occupied in the profession, which was triggered by what she saw as sexual discrimination in 1941 during the war. The Ministry of Labour began to call up women veterinary surgeons for essential war work while men were considered in a reserved occupation

This incident made Joan realise that something had to be done to gain women influence in the corridors of power in the RCVS. With Margaret Bentley (another London practitioner) she founded the Society of Women Veterinary Surgeons in December 1941; Joan was elected president. She now had a position that she could use to initiate change, and she did this for the next 25 years. These were not just issues and changes for women; as one obituarist wrote “the profession benefitted from her deep commitment to politics and to the skills she employed, from confrontation to slow reasoned debate”.

Joan was then invited to serve on influential committees, including those dealing with veterinary education and unqualified practitioners, and the setting up of the Veterinary Education Trust (later the Animal Health Trust) and the National Council for Domestic Food Production; most importantly, she helped to raise a petition which rallied the profession in favour of the Loveday Report recommendations on veterinary education. This was all undertaken by a woman in single-handed practice during wartime, one who was qualified for less than seven years.

She helped to raise a petition which rallied the profession in favour of the Loveday Report recommendations on veterinary education

Joan’s practice and reputation grew. She became the first female FRCVS in 1950, for a study on canine leptospirosis; served on NVMA (now BVA) Council from 1941 to 1953 and as a member of their Editorial Committee for over 30 years; was president of the Central Veterinary Society from 1949 to 1950; served on RCVS Council from 1953 to 1966; and was the only woman on the British Veterinary Codex Committee from 1950 to 1965.

Later life

In 1962 she was invited to join the Liverpool Veterinary School as reader in the Department of Veterinary Clinical Studies. She resigned from the RCVS Council, fully aware that she was in line for president. She felt that it would be wrong to hold that position if not in practice. Joan ran the school’s hospital “as a benign dictatorship”. Her authoritarian approach did not always sit well with her academic colleagues, but her positive lecturing style made her popular with her students. They called her “Auntie Joan” as she combined benevolence with old-fashioned discipline. She revealed her softer side to her students, in particular the women, while she tried to understand their permissive society.

As secretary of the Central Veterinary Society for some years, I knew Joan, and found I could always call on her for help or advice, which was never refused. Her reputation with her fellow practitioners and clients was very high – though those clients whose animal care or other behaviour offended her would be told to go, never to return, in a totally unambiguous letter! 

Joan had a lifetime interest in dogs, in particular the Chow breed, and in retirement bred them and judged at Crufts. She received many awards from the RCVS, BVA, Central Veterinary Society and many others. And, in almost all cases, she was the first woman to receive these awards. The profession recognised the contribution that she had made.

Her 81-year life was fully occupied, and animals and the veterinary profession were her total interest.

Madeleine Sheppard

Madeleine Sheppard née Oyler (1912-1990), and later Beveridge, made a totally different contribution to the veterinary profession. An early female student at the Royal Veterinary College, she qualified as an MRCVS in 1933. Her record was exceptional: she achieved the outstanding feat of winning the Fitzwygram, Williams and Walley prizes in 1932 and 1933, together with all the medals.

Madeleine was invited to join the staff of the Beaumont Animal Hospital as house surgeon, and soon became senior house surgeon under Professor J G Wright. Her deftness and skill developed rapidly. She also became interested in the injectable barbiturate anaesthetic agents which were being studied for animal use.

Research and clinical practice

Wright was highly interested in anaesthesia and needed case numbers to demonstrate the safety of the barbiturate procedure for his 1941 book Veterinary Anaesthesia. He wrote that intravenous pentobarbitone had “been used in more than 2,000 cases and in over 800 consecutive ones without any deaths attributable to the anaesthesia” (Wright, 1941). The majority of these animals were anaesthetised by Madeleine, though Wright did not give her any credit in his book; however, they did publish a joint paper in 1935. Madeleine also published on the use of thiopentone in 1937, this time with her husband D H Sheppard.

Madeleine had become a skilled surgeon, specialising in orthopaedic work but with good clinical capabilities. In 1936 she published one of the early works on tuberculosis in the dog

Madeleine had become a skilled surgeon, specialising in orthopaedic work but with good clinical capabilities. In 1936 she published one of the early works on tuberculosis in the dog. After the war, she opened her own practice in Bayswater, to some degree specialising in feline problems. General practice was where she was happy: she had a natural empathy with animals and people.

Madeleine had a difficult relationship with some neighbouring practices who felt she was charging a cut-price fee for cat spays. Her response was direct – she said her objective was to help her clients and reduce the number of unwanted kittens at a reasonable cost, and that a cat spay was a quick and simple procedure. This was true: I watched her operate. It was a revelation. She used an American technique for positioning the patient and with her skill it was completed in minutes. Madeleine was more interested in feline welfare and satisfied clients than money.

She said her objective was to help her clients and reduce the number of unwanted kittens at a reasonable cost, and that a cat spay was a quick and simple procedure

Later life

I first knew Madeleine when I was investigating injectable anaesthetic combinations and needed clinical trial work. Having seen her operate I asked her to speak to the Central Veterinary Society on feline orthopaedic surgery. She rarely attended meetings, but she did come and gave an excellent practical exposition. Shortly afterwards, in 1960, I was collecting papers for the first issue of The Journal of Small Animal Practice; I asked Madeleine if she would write and expand on her Central talk. There was reluctance, but she did, and it appeared along with other recognised authors.

We then lost contact, but I heard she had retired and remarried as Madeleine Beveridge. Then, a few years later, I came across her RVC medal collection in a sale catalogue: as a memento I bought seven, from her 1931 to 1932 and 1932 to 1933 prize awards. Shortly afterwards in 1990, I was to read in her obituary the words “she was a remarkable woman”, and, I can add, a singularly nice one as well.

Madeleine deserves to be remembered as an exceptional surgeon and anaesthetist whose work revolutionised surgery in small animal practice in the 1950s and ’60s.  She never received any awards and never sought them, but her work enabled a major advance in small animal practice.

References

Wright, J. G.

1942 [1941]

Veterinary Anaesthesia. Bailliere, Tindall & Cox, London

Bruce Vivash Jones

Bruce Vivash Jones, BVetSts, MRCVS, graduated from the RVC in 1951. After retiring from his consultancy business in 2003, he began studying and writing on the history of the profession and veterinary medicine. Bruce was awarded an honorary DVetMed degree by the RVC in 2019 for his services to small animal practice, veterinary nursing and for his work on veterinary history.


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