A Brief History of Veterinary Medicine – Part One

History Of Veterinary Medicine
The Ancient Egyptians Cared For And Perhaps Loved Their Pets As We Do Today

The practice of treating and caring for animals has roots extending from the earliest historical times, and no doubt predates the first written records on the subject by many thousands of years. Egyptian and Indian writings from the second millennium BC make references to veterinary medicine. The Chinese had special priests that looked after horses, due in part to their economic value. In fact, horse doctoring was the major impetus for the development of veterinary medicine from ancient times up through the 19th century, and it remains an important specialty within the profession. Of course, the scope of veterinary medicine has widened considerably and now encompasses most animals higher than the microorganisms.


Classical Antiquity

History of Veterinary Medicine
The Ancient Romans Utilized Horses For Sporting And Military Purposes And Therefore Needed To Care For Them

Writings preserved from ancient Greece reference animal diseases. The famous Roman agriculturist Cato wrote in 200 BC about treatments for diseases of sheep. By the Common Era, written records from China and Rome discussed the treatment of horses and included detailed anatomical drawings. The Chinese even applied acupuncture to horses. Around 330 AD, Apsyrtus of Byzantium was hailed as the father of veterinary medicine, and 120 years later, the Roman Vegetius Renatus wrote influential books on the topic. By the middle ages, blacksmiths supplemented their horseshoeing work with general horse doctoring.

Beginning in the 7th century, Mohammedans began translating Greek works into Arabic, including some veterinary texts. They were especially concerned with, and became skilled at, horse husbandry. The Arabic texts were later translated to Latin, transmitting ancient veterinary information to Europe of the Dark Ages.

A book on horse medicine, Hippiatria by Laurence Rusius, was written in Italy around 1350, but only gained wide circulation after the advent of the printing press two centuries later. A book on the care of hounds was published by Gaston Phoebus in 1388. The first major English text on horse medicine dates to 1565, written by Thomas Blundeville, followed soon thereafter by George Tuberville’s English text about dog diseases.

Veterinarian schools appeared during the late 15th century in Spain, but did not flourish. The first modern veterinarian college arose in France, centuries later. Perhaps the beginning of modern veterinary science can be traced to Italy’s Carl Ruini, who in 1598 published an influential book on horse anatomy, which was also the first book on non-human anatomy. Many more veterinary books followed over the next century, with emphasis on horses and dogs.

The 18th Century

Around 1711, an effective treatment of a viral disease afflicting livestock was developed but was not put into wide use, resulting in many unnecessary deaths. Claude Bourgelat is credited with opening the first modern veterinary school, in Lyons France around 1761, followed by similar schools in Germany, England and throughout Europe. The Lyons school often sent students to treat local outbreaks of cattle plague, which proved largely successful.

In 1783, England’s Odham Agricultural Society campaigned for animal welfare. Dr. James Clark wrote Prevention of Disease, which calls for the establishment of an English veterinary school, and Granville Penn took up this cause. Penn successfully induced Lyons graduate Benoit Vial de St. Bel to become the professor at the new the Royal Veterinary College, founded in 1791, in London, England. The college published influential texts by William Youatt concerning the horse, dog, pig, cattle and sheep. Indeed, Youatt owned a British periodical, The Veterinarian, the first devoted exclusively to the topic.

History of Veterinary Medicine, London, England
London, England Became A Center For Veterinary (and human medical) Care In The 18th Century

Veterinary and human medicine intersected in 1795 when Jenner discovered that milkmaids who worked with cattle suffering from cowpox did not contract smallpox, and the development of the first vaccine occurred in 1796. That same year saw the founding of the British Royal Army Veterinary Service to help care for cavalry horses.

Some graduates from the Royal Veterinary College in London, began to emigrate to the U.S. around the turn of the 19th century. The period of 1800 to 1860 saw the organization of American agriculture, including raising livestock. Naturally, this created a great demand for qualified veterinarians, especially with regard to halting animal plagues. In 1806, the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture sponsored an essay contest on how to promote veterinary knowledge. It would take another 80 years before the University of Pennsylvania established its School of Veterinary Medicine.

Agricultural journals gained popularity beginning in the 1820s, and these often had articles about veterinary medicine and animal plagues. The public became aware of the shocking costs of animal plagues such as “rubbing disorder” and “mad itch.” The editor of the first journal, American Farmer, was John S. Skinner. He was intensely interested in veterinary medicine and wrote Every Man his Own Cattle Doctor. Skinner was also instrumental in disseminating Youatt on the Horse.

In Part Two, we’ll continue our brief history from 1830 onward to the present day.