Anniversary inspires veterinary history commemoration

National Library of Medicine exhibition highlights equine medicine

August 18, 2011 (published)
By Edie Lau

“Geometric Proportions of the Horse” is a copperplate engraved illustration in the first of two volumes of Elemens d’Hippatrique by Claude Bourgelat, printed in Paris in 1750. Courtesy National Library of Medicine.

Amid the 8 million volumes that make up the world’s largest collection of medical publications at the National Library of Medicine are 1,000 books documenting the history of veterinary medicine before 1850.

It was from that subset of volumes that curator Michael North drew a vivid, visual display for the national library in Bethesda, Md., spanning a 400-year history of veterinary medicine starting from the 1500s.

Titled “From Craft to Profession: The Transition from Horse Farrier to Professional Veterinarian,” the exhibition focuses on equine medicine because that’s chiefly what ministering to animal health was about at the time.

“I would say 95 to 98 percent of veterinary literature before about 1800 is about horses,” said North, head of rare books and early manuscripts at the library. (In the rare-book world, 1800 marks a transition from hand-printing to machine presses.) North added: “There were maybe a couple of books about dogs and some of the horse books do talk about sheep and cows, but really, (it was) the horse (that) was such an important animal economically and militarily.”

The exhibition, which began July 11 and runs through Oct. 7, comes in the midst of World Veterinary Year, a commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the world’s first veterinary school, Ecole Nationale Veterinaire de Lyon, established in 1761 in Lyon, France.

Part of the show is devoted to the story of Claude Bourgelat, an authority on horse care and horsemanship with an interest in science. Bourgelat, along with Henri-Leonard Bertin, administrator of the region of Lyon, are credited with co-founding the school — and with it, veterinary medicine as a profession.

“Wounded Horse Chart” by Walter von Nitschwitz et al. is one of the oldest items in the exhibition, dating from 1583. Courtesy National Library of Medicine.

The story told by the roughly 20 documents that make up the National Library of Medicine’s exhibition begins long before Bourgelat’s day. One of the oldest entries in the show is an image of a wounded horse that appears in a German manuscript prepared circa 1580. Called Wounded Horse Chart, North said, it illustrates the locations where a horse was likely to be hurt in battle; the text gives instruction on caring for each kind of wound. The chart is similar to Wound Man, an illustration dating to the Middle Ages showing injuries a person might incur through battle or accident, with accompanying text describing treatments.

For centuries, North said, horse care was in the hands of blacksmiths known as farriers, whose training in animal care came largely on the job. “They were the equivalent of barber-surgeons for horses who learned their trade through apprenticeship,” North said.

And like barber-surgeons of medieval times, farriers employed techniques such as bloodletting and purging as treatments.

Such traditional methods began to give way to a modern scientific approach in the 18th century during the period known as Enlightenment. “A lot of the sciences were changing at that time,” North recounted. “France was at the core of it. They were saying, ‘Look, if you’re going to say the sky is blue, you have to measure it; you have to tell why. If you’re going to say it’s cold today, figure out what the temperature is and write it down and study it.’ ”

It was in this environment that Bourgelat raised doubts about farriers’ traditional knowledge, handed down orally over the generations. North, paraphrasing Bourgelat, said: “They haven’t studied the data; they haven’t studied the horse scientifically. It’s time to do that.”

The idea of establishing a professional school for veterinary medicine was furthered by the fact that a number of epizootic disease outbreaks affecting horses and cattle were occurring at the time, North added.

The veterinary school in Lyon attracted students from across Europe, including Germany, the Netherlands and England. Alumni went on to open veterinary schools elsewhere in Europe, including in 1791 the Royal Veterinary College in London.

This colorful illustration graces “The Grooms’ Oracle and Pocket Stable Directory” by John Badcock, who published the volume under the pseudonym John Hinds in Philadelphia in 1831. Courtesy National Library of Medicine.

Today, there are 28 accredited veterinary schools in the United States and some 500 veterinary programs around the world.

Across the Atlantic, veterinary education took longer to catch on. North said a few small private veterinary programs sprouted in the 1840s in the United States. The training might run three or four months; those who completed the course would be conferred a VS, or veterinary surgery, degree. “The thing is, there was no standardization; no big university behind it,” North said.

It wasn’t until 1857 — nearly 100 years after the founding of the school in Lyon — that the first formal veterinary school was established in the United States at New York University.

The impetus for more such education came from government. “By 1870 or so, the states each started requiring veterinarians to get licenses and that they have certain credentials,” North said. “That’s when a lot of universities started opening veterinary schools.”

The evolution of veterinary medicine continues with the development of specialties — from anesthesiology to zoological medicine — and formal schooling and credentials for veterinary staff. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment at the State University of New York in Delhi of the first veterinary technician training program in the United States.

The national library, part of the National Institutes of Health, is open to the public. The exhibition is located in the History of Medicine Division Reading Room, open weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

A view of the exhibition is posted online.

This story has been changed from the original to correct a discrepancy in dates.

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