History of veterinary medicine

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Humans have had long and varied interactions with many of the wild animals in their environment. They have always found animals interesting; awe inspiring; amusing; companions; a messenger to and from the gods. Animal-based products are used as food, useful implements, clothing, writing media, etc. In addition, humans have often been able to utilize some species of animals for transport of people, goods, and equipment, for peaceful purposes and military campaigns, etc. Images of animals have been scratched on rocks, drawn on cave walls, sculpted from local materials, used to illustrate human characteristics, as religious symbols, etc. For instance, most cultures have imagined animal shapes in the constellations of stars, and as spirits that are either positive or negative in human activities or religions. For example, ancient Egyptians bowed to the bull, venerated the cat and held other animals in high regard. Christians used the symbol of the lamb and the shepherd caring for the flock representing Christ leading the believers.

Whether subjects of art and worship or images of agriculture, or through jokes or cartoons, animal figures depict aspects of a culture and illustrate the creator’s values. Human relationships with animals have been and still are complex, instructive, and paradoxical.

Some interesting uses of animals in literature can be found in writings such as Aesop who composed many of his tales using animals to illustrate human qualities, actions and characteristics. In the Medieval period the “Physiologues” gave mystic meaning to 50 legends of animals and natural objects. Animal similes were used in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to illustrate the everyday experiences of life. Even Shakespeare alluded to animals—over 4000 of them. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the romantic literature of that time intended to free men physically and spiritually. The animal that they felt epitomized this new freedom was the bird.

Through all these periods of time, humans tried to understand illness in their own bodies, and often recognized that many of these same illnesses seemed to attack their animals as well. The Chinese used herbal medicine and other treatments to attempt to cure themselves and their favorite/most valuable animals.

What follows is a brief historical review of some of the major authors who wrote about illness in animals. We get a glimpse of how the expertise and scientific approach to treating animals developed from the Greek and Roman days to the twentieth century.

The Beginnings

In historical information in China, there are records dating to 4000-3000 B.C. that record the use of herbs for curative purposes for humans and animals. Egyptian hieroglyphics from around 3500 B.C. show the presence of numerous types of domesticated animals. But, the evidence for the development of a body of information directly dealing with animal healing in Western thought is implicated to have begun in Mesopotamia in about 300 B.C. The first individual to be considered a veterinarian is Urlagaldinna. The Greek Scientist, Alcmaeon (c. 500 B.C.) was the first person known to have dissected animals for scientific purposes. In India there are records that animal hospitals were established in India during the Brahaman era and the reign of King Ashoka (273-232 B.C.).

During the Greco-Roman period there were a number of individuals who recorded the current knowledge regarding animal care and disease. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) recorded much of the knowledge regarding animals. He recognized that animals were different and yet some showed similar characteristics to humans. He proposed a classification system of animal species that served as the basis for the development of a systematic classification we call taxonomy. Much of Aristotle’s writing forms the beginning of Western recorded natural science. Animals that were important at that time included oxen and asses used to power agricultural activities, and sheep and goats raised for food and fiber purposes and probably horses.

Virgil, in works such as “Georgica,” immortalized some of the epidemics of human and animal diseases that occurred frequently on Roman farms and cities. But, it is Cato (234-149 B.C.) and another writer Varro (116-27 B.C.), who were both influenced by Greek scholars, that produced many works about contagious diseases. Tragically, most of these works seem to have been destroyed and copies no longer exist.

Columella, a respected Roman scholar and writer of the first Century A.D., was a very prolific writer on the topic of animal care and breeding. He recorded and used the term “veterinarius” for a person who is a caretaker of pigs, sheep and cattle. (It is interesting to note that the word veterina was the Roman word for “pack animals”. In Rome the term "souvetaurinarii" was another word that was used for someone who took care of animals.) Between 42-68 A.D., Columella wrote 12 volumes of animal-related publications on topics such as animal breeding, husbandry, and health in livestock. His works include descriptions of disease, and medication formulae that were used up into the Middle Ages. Even though Columella wrote rather extensively on breeding and husbandry, there was little progress in the understanding or effective treatment of internal diseases and health problems of both humans and their animals.

For this early veterinary related history, an excellent bibliographic list can be found on the World Association of the History of Veterinary Medicine's website at: (http://www.euroscience.nl/vethist.html).

Europeans Post-Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, there are many references to animal plagues and their devastating effects on farmers’ productivity. Some of plagues were recorded by individuals like Francois Rabelaias, who recorded the first full description of sheep pox in 1494. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there were major advances in understanding human and animal diseases due to inventions such as the microscope and the development of a scientific method of inquiry into things unknown. For example, during a plague in European cattle in 1711, Giovanni Mario Lancisi first diagnosed Rinderpest as a contagious viral cattle disease. A year later, Bernardino Ramazzini vaccinated cattle against cattle plague. However, the approach to animal diseases was mostly from the human medicine viewpoint. It was not until 1762 that the first veterinary school in the world was established by Claude Bourgelat in Lyons, France. It is interesting to note that soon after the establishment of a French veterinary college, others were established in the 1770’s in Sweden, Germany (Hanover), Denmark, and Austria (Vienna). In 1844, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) was founded in Great Britain. The first veterinary college in the United States was not established until 1879.

Some of the great advancements made in the 1700’s were the result of John Hunter, a Scotsman who lived and worked through most of the century (1728-1793). He left an important legacy not only by his research and writing, but through those he trained as well. Up until this time, the “veterinary type profession” consisted of mostly self-declared practitioners, farriers, blacksmiths, herdsmen, and local granny-witch doctors who were mostly illiterate. The educated horse masters, country squires and intellectually curious gentlemen often quoted the ancient masters. There was also the ethic that animals are put on this earth to serve mankind and that they were unable to feel pain as humans did. These ideas often fostered a sense of callousness and cruelty in people who were around animals. The more disgusting and harsh the treatment of disease the more effective people thought they would be. In many ways, the level of treatment for human diseases was not much different.

However, in the 1700’s there appeared a new type of veterinary practitioner known as the surgeon-farrier. Individuals like John Hunter were part of this emerging group. This was a dramatic change in they type of individuals who were interested in treating animals. These men were often a physician, surgeon or apothecary who for various reasons turned to treating animals. For the first time, there was an active practitioner who could write about his research, experience, and treatment activities. Most of the early literature focused on the horse—obviously one of the most important animals in the culture and often the most valuable. John Hunter was of this genre.

At an early age, Hunter became an assistant to his brother William, a renowned physician, anatomist and medical educator. John became an avid anatomist and took to surgery and dissection and research with enthusiasm. After working with and learning from his brother for 12 years, he served as a surgeon in the army. He then learned dentistry through association with the Spence family. For 30 years, until his death in 1793, Hunter examined everything from hearing in fish to dentistry. He contributed more written work on domestic animal husbandry and veterinary science than anyone had published in the previous 125 years. Originally most of the papers were published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, but were republished in 1792 in a compiled work “Observation on the Animal Oeconomy.”

Animal Care in the New World (United States)

European species of domestic animals were brought to the West Indies on boats beginning with Christopher Columbus’s second voyage in 1493. These animals multiplied well and served as the foundation stock for the Spanish colonies in Mexico.

In 1520 European cattle were introduced in Florida by Ponce de Leon, but animals did not arrive in the Virginia colonies until 1611. By 1627, their numbers in the Virginia colonies had grown to 5,000 in spite of the Indian’s killing many of them in 1622. There were few horses in these introductions, as they required more care than the cattle and were not as useful for the hard work that oxen were needed to perform. There appears to have been some transfer of animal treatments from England, as there are references to “an expert cow doctor” practicing in Virginia as early as 1625. What sorts of treatments were being used is really not known. It is probably safe to say, that they were probably what was being used in England at the time.

At the same time that the larger livestock numbers were increasing in Virginia, there were introductions of only small animals in New England. It is known that there were dogs on the ship Mayflower, and possibly goats and chickens but no cattle or horses. The larger livestock animals were not brought into the northern colonies until 1620.

Since many of the wealthy country households were quite self-sustaining, they had interests in the health and welfare of their livestock. George Washington does not mention any professional attention given to his stock at Mount Vernon, but he does mention that he sought treatment for various animals during his extensive travels. Washington did take an interest in breeding and developed a draft mule called the “big jack”. He also had sheep grazing on his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia.

Thomas Jefferson also was a gentlemen farmer who when he was in Charlottesville showed much interest in his livestock as well as all useful plants. He seems to have primarily been interested in sheep health. One disease problem that plagued him was sheep scab. Much of his correspondence is related to this disease in his flocks. It does seem that livestock became scrawnier, smaller and less productive than the original stock of animals imported from Europe.

The Nineteenth Century

In the 1800’s, the microscope revealed the world of microbes. A scientific method for research began to be developed for a rational approach to identifying the larger disease organisms and an understanding of the disease process. By the mid 1800’s technology was in place to support effective efforts to understand and treat disease in humans and animals. European ideas and literature were transferred by individuals and imported into the United States during the Colonial period via scholarly journals, and onsite visits by Americans as they traveled in Europe. Some of the more literate and interested gentlemen farmers attempted to apply new products, knowledge and methods.

A British surgeon—turned veterinarian, George Dadd was an early advocate of rational animal health practices in America. He is considered the author of the first two classics in American veterinary literature—“The Modern Horse Doctor” (Boston 1854) and “The American Cattle Doctor” (1851). His recommendations and teachings were largely ignored by the barely-organized veterinary profession. A quote from “The American Cattle Doctor” states veterinary science was “a matter for reproach. . . The farmers have must begun to see the absurdity of bleeding an animal to death with a view to saving its life; or pouring down their throats destructive agents with a view of making one disease cure another.”

Late in the eighteenth century, reprints of some works of English veterinary writers and translations of German and French veterinary works appeared in American editions. The use of the Latin derived term veterinarian was introduced in the English writings of Sir Thomas Browne of Great Britain (c1802). It was not until much later that the term gained general usage for those who treated animals and their diseases and injuries. Before that they were called “farriers” or a “cow leech” and other similar names.

In 1844, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) was founded by a Royal Charter in the United Kingdom as a governing body of the veterinary profession to ensure that educational and ethical standards required by law were maintained. The college required five years of study—two years of basic veterinary sciences to understand healthy animals, anatomy, physiology, etc. and three years of clinical and clinical-related courses, skill of examinations, diagnosis, etc.

The founding date of the American Veterinary Medical Association was 1863. The U.S. Livestock Sanitary Association (now the U.S. Animal Health Association) was established in 1897. Other livestock and poultry organizations followed. The first United States veterinary school was not established until 1879. At that time, Iowa State University developed a program of graduate study in the field[1].

About 20 years after the establishment of the U.S. Department of Agriculture by Abraham Lincoln, the fledging Department’s administrators soon realized that there needed to be more support for scientific based programs to address issues of animal care and production. They were supported in these concerns by the farmers and ranchers who were having problems selling their animals and animal products abroad. So, in 1884, the Bureau of Animal Industry (BAI*) was created by Congress within USDA in response to petitions from farmers and ranchers.

Twentieth Century

In the twentieth century, progress in veterinary medicine continued to advance. Gradually, educational institutions and associations were founded and evolved to communicate the advances to the veterinary community. Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland were among the first. In the United States, the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) began to employ veterinary officers. Their duties were to undertake duties that included control and eradication of major epidemic farm animal diseases, the control of imported and exported animals and animal products, the operation of animal health laboratories and treatment of the animals within them, and other animal welfare matters. Veterinary scientists could undertake basic or clinical research in natural science laboratories within the USDA, with veterinary schools of universities and other governmental and industrial research institutions, and the military. There are veterinary inspectors that deal with licensing and license regulations, and veterinary field service officers who deal with consumer protection involving meat hygiene, and communicable diseases between animals and humans[2].

After World War I, we began to see a lessening of utilitarian uses of the horse, and the beginning of automated agriculture. Many veterinarians then began to turn toward the care of dogs and cats as a means of survival. Until this time, small animal medicine had been a minor part of veterinary medicine. Norman Rockwell depicted this by several illustrations that did not even include veterinarians. On March 10, 1923, a memorable illustration appeared on the cover of "The Saturday Evening Post" titled "Puppy Love" in which a young boy in the country wearing tattered clothes was pouring medicine from a patent medicine bottle intended for a sick dog wrapped in blankets nearby.

During the next thirty years, the veterinary profession in the United States blossomed and gradually became an equal member of the medical community. There were efforts on the part of several professional associations to show the public the professional status that veterinarians had achieved.

In the 1940's, 50's, and 60’s, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Animal Hospital Association, the Associated Serum Producers, Inc. and others were in the midst of various public relations campaigns that stressed how a veterinarian must appear as a professional. Two of Norman Rockwell's illustrations from this time period demonstrate these ideas and indicate the favorable public opinion held at that time of the veterinary profession. The first famous Rockwell illustration of an animal receiving medical attention is entitled "Waiting for the Vet." It is a painting that appeared on the March 29, 1952 cover of "The Saturday Evening Post". It is a delightful picture of a boy, Jimmy, sitting in a waiting room and holding in his arms a sick dog whose head was in a makeshift bandage. The waiting room was filled with four other dogs and their owners. Peeping through a door on the right is a veterinarian attending a patient. This time the veterinarian is an older man wearing a long white lab coat and stethoscope. "Waiting for the Vet" marked a return to regular subjects for Rockwell, including children, dogs and doctors, but with new settings and new props--the veterinarian's office instead of a patent medicine bottle--and all that it implies. In 1961, another Rockwell illustration, this one commissioned by the UpJohn Company, showed a young male veterinarian examining a small dog on the examination table in a small animal clinic. The illustration, simply titled “The Veterinarian,” was used for the cover of the 1963 American Veterinary Medical Association’s annual convention booket. In the print, a boy looks on anxiously as the veterinarian completes his examination. The veterinarian is wearing a white medical smock and a stethoscope, and there is a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine Diploma from Cornell University in the background. This scene sends a message of utmost professionalism. No longer is the boy relying on his own knowledge and wit, a doctor is now being consulted. All these details lend credence to the occupation and conduct of the veterinarian.

In 1947 in the United States, the Association for Women Veterinarians (AWV) was founded by Mary Knight Dunlap (1910-1992). At that time, the U.S. had about 120 women veterinarians, mainly in and around New York City and in East Lansing, Michigan. The number of women graduating with veterinary degrees rose from 200 in 1963 to 3,213 in 1980, reaching 18,088 in 1995. This change in the position of women veterinarians in the U.S. over the past 50 years is the subject of a book “Our History of Women in Veterinary Medicine: Gumption, Grace, Grit, and Good Humor.” The book was compiled and edited by Phyllis Hickney Larsen, DVM, Chair of the AWV History Committee, in honor of the AWV’s 50th anniversary in 1997. It includes chapters written by women veterinarians working in a wide variety of positions all over the United States. You can find more information about this organization at the following web site; http://www.awv-women-veterinarians.org/index.cfm

In 1964, German veterinarians and others interested in veterinary history were invited to a symposium on the history of veterinary medicine in Hanover, Germany, sponsored by the German Veterinary Medical Association (DVG) and the German Institute (Fachgebiet) for the History of Veterinary Medicine, established in 1963 within the Veterinary College, Hanover. As a result of this meeting, in 1969, the World Association for the History of Veterinary Medicine (WAHVM) was founded.


  1. The American Veterinary Profession: its background and development / J.F. Smithcors. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1963
  2. Dukes, TW (1989) The history of veterinary medicine. Can Vet J 30(3):213

1. Judith Ho, Animal Welfare Information Center, National Agricultural Library, U. S. Department of Agriculture