Pioneering a profession

The birth of veterinary education in the Age of Enlightenment
Published on
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old

Legends in Veterinary Medicine

What better way to celebrate a major milestone in the profession's history than with a look back at a few veterinarians who made substantial contributions, starting with the man who founded the first veterinary school. See sidebar for more information.


Claude Bourgelat was in a bind.

C. Bourgelat

He had just established a veterinary school in Lyon, France, after much persistence. It had taken him years to build the reputation and connections needed to make this happen, and finally, with an order by King Louis XV's Royal Council of State, the Royal Veterinary School became a reality Aug. 4, 1761. It was created, in part, for students to learn how to treat livestock diseases.

Yet, Bourgelat was still concerned about the institution's financial future. To ensure its stability, he wanted the school to receive greater official recognition. That, it turned out, wouldn't be easy to come by, either. The school had to prove its worth. Fortunately for Bourgelat and the school, he was a public relations master.

Six months after the school opened, Bourgelat published a compendium of results achieved by his students in fighting rinderpest and various zoonoses, suggesting that similar results would be obtained wherever veterinary medicine was practiced, based on the strength of the therapeutic interventions they used. The statistical tables accompanying his report gained Bourgelat the honor and support he was seeking.

Won over by this demonstration of the students' success in preventing the spread of and treating epizootic diseases, the king was persuaded to bestow on the institution a further token of confidence. So, on June 3, 1764, the Royal Council of State decreed that the Lyon institution be given the title Royal Veterinary School. It would later become the Imperial School and finally the National School.

"Math, music, and manners"

Bourgelat may not have gained the global renown of his contemporaries Voltaire and Diderot; however, he proved just as influential in the realms of veterinary medicine, zoonotic disease, and public health. This 18th century expert horseman contributed greatly to the knowledge of animal health, developed a style of horse riding that continues today, and, in what became his lasting legacy, founded the world's first veterinary school.

Bourgelat was born March 27, 1712, the son of a noble Lyon family. He received a classical education and originally intended to practice law, according to a biography by J.W. Barber-Lomax in the February 1964 issue of the Journal of Small Animal Practice. His love of horses, however, determined otherwise. Bourgelat immersed himself in the writings of that era's masters of horsemanship, including the Duke of Newcastle and Jacques de Solleysel.

In 1740, when he was 28 years old, Bourgelat was named grand equerry of France and became director of the Lyon Academy of Horsemanship. The academy, at that time, was a school where young noblemen learned the equestrian arts and swordsmanship, together with math, music, and manners. During this time, according to Barber-Lomax: "Bourgelat's study of veterinary classics made him realize the deficiencies in his knowledge and under the direction of two surgeons of Lyon he studied the anatomy, physiology, and pathology of animals."

Two period paintings depicting horsemanship
Claude Bourgelat was named grand equerry of France and became director of the Lyon Academy of Horsemanship at only 28 years old. He was considered one of the finest practitioners of manége, the art of training and riding horses.

Four years later, he published his first work, "Nouveau Newcastle ou Nouveau traité de Cavalerie" (A New Treatise on Horsemanship). This instructive publication put forward a new approach to "horse craft." It quickly brought Bourgelat considerable recognition and helped him to be considered one of the best riders in Europe during that time, according to Barber-Lomax.

Beginnings of a revolution

But Bourgelat wasn't content with his reputation as an expert horseman. Highly cultivated and an elegant writer, Bourgelat maintained correspondence with the great minds of his time, including Voltaire, a French Enlightenment writer and philosopher who influenced important thinkers of the French and American revolutions; Jean-Baptiste le Rond d'Alembert, a French mathematician who was co-editor with Denis Diderot of the Encyclopédie; and Frederic the Great, the third King of Prussia and one of the most distinguished monarchs of the 18th century.

(The Encyclopédie was the first encyclopedia to include contributions from many named contributors. Above all, the work is famous for representing the thought of the Enlightenment. Bourgelat himself wrote nearly 200 articles.)

A product of that age, Bourgelat was considered a rationalist, according to the book "Lyon: berceau des sciences vétérinaires" (Lyon: cradle of veterinary science) by Jack Bost. He wanted to base medicine on known observation and experimentation. This desire was evidenced in 1750 when Bourgelat published "Élémens d'hippiatrique ou nouveaux principes sur la connoissance et sur la médecine des chevaux" (Elements of the principles of veterinary art, or, new knowledge about medicine and horses). This book led to his election as a member of the Academy of Sciences. The learned society, founded in 1666 by King Louis XIV, was at the forefront of scientific developments in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

More important, his book demonstrated that Bourgelat had already conceived of the idea of veterinary teaching standards. In the preface of "Elements," he wrote: "Those who intend to (acquire skills in veterinary art) will not be able to acquire a sufficient degree of education … (since) we do not have schools for teaching."

It wouldn't be until a decade later, however, that plans for a veterinary school would start to materialize.

Friends in high places

A key player in the school's inception was Henri Léonard Jean Baptiste Bertin, an administrator of the region of Lyon from 1754-1757. He and Bourgelat became close in that time, and from then on, Bertin showed support for his friend.

Front and back covers of "Elements"
Bourgelat moved away from learning about how horses should be ridden to how they should be treated. He expressed an interest in pathology and anatomy, which he believed were subjects that had been heavily neglected. His studies eventually led to the publication, in 1750, of "Élémens d'hippiatrique."

When Bertin left Lyon, he was made lieutenant general of police in Paris, and later, controller general of finance. Bourgelat was alternately made responsible for the royal horse-breeding establishments in the Lyon area and then inspector of the Lyon Library in 1760. By 1761, when Bourgelat was 49, he already had 25 years of management experience at the King's Academy. But this was not enough for him, according to Bost.

Fortuitously for Bourgelat, in 1761, the government of King Louis XV wished to prevent cattle disease, protect grazing land, and train farmers. Bertin became the agent of this agricultural reform initiated by the king. Doubtless, it was then that the idea of a veterinary teaching facility captured Bertin's interest, according to Bost. He proposed that a veterinary school should be founded in Lyon and that the director should be Bourgelat.

Although willing to make a personal investment of time and energy, Bourgelat was not about to commit any money to the endeavor. So on Aug. 4, 1761, he obtained a grant from the king that was signed by Bertin "to defray the expenses of the establishment and maintenance of the school for diseases of cattle, to be placed in the city of Lyon. The grant was an allocation of 50,000 livres (8 ounces of gold was worth 740 livres) payable in six years," Bost wrote. Six months later, in February 1762, the first students were admitted.

Cracking the books

In 1996, Dr. Vincent Krogmann, a Lyon veterinary student at the time, wrote a thesis in partial fulfillment of his veterinary degree titled "L'Enseignement Vétérinaire a Lyon aux XVIIIº et XIXº Siecles" (Veterinary education in Lyon in the 18th and 19th centuries).

Krogmann's research uncovered the only requirement for admission to the new school—the ability to read and write. There was no age limit. In fact, in 1762, an 11-year-old child was in the same class as a man older than 30. Students were obliged to present evidence of baptism and a certificate of good conduct.

Bourgelat, according to Krogmann, even dismissed those who already had scientific training as doctors because he feared that they would quickly give up veterinary medicine to devote themselves solely to human medicine and surgery, which was more lucrative. In all, 38 students enrolled at the school in Lyon through the end of 1762.

Starting a veterinary school curriculum from scratch was no small task, but it proved relatively easy in contrast to actually teaching the students, Krogmann wrote. The faculty had to cover a vast number of topics, which was made difficult by the fact that students put variable amounts of time into completing their studies. Students arrived throughout the year to take the "theoretical" courses. These were divided into three classes. The first was devoted to the study of external parts, animal osteology, and mycology. The second was devoted to "materia medica," splanchnology, and bandaging. The third was devoted to physiology, medicine, pharmacology, and the appropriate use of medications.

In the classroom, Bourgelat wrote out all the information he required the students to learn, and the students copied it verbatim. This was done to standardize classes in the beginning of the school; however, it was hard for the entire faculty to harmonize the knowledge levels of the various students. Plus, most new students spoke the dialect of their province, and some were not even familiar with holding a pen. This made the requirement to copy their instruction books infinitely difficult, Krogmann wrote. Later on, Bourgelat's books would form the basis of the theoretical teaching, which, again, students were required to copy verbatim and memorize. They had to recite the content without error.

Students didn't spend all of their time writing and memorizing. Bourgelat, Krogmann wrote, "rejected the lengthy theoretical courses, preferring to give his students a concrete explanation, followed by demonstrations. Teachers, liberated from lengthy lectures, could devote themselves to explaining to the students what they were viewing." Practical training sessions consisted of dissections and botany—the students made a herbarium—and working the forge, because Bourgelat figured veterinarians should know how to shoe and to forge the shackles that they used, according to Krogmann.

In addition to attending the compulsory lectures and practical exercises, each week, students were assigned to feed the animals, light fires, and keep the rooms clean, including the dissection room, stables, and forges. Students also practiced under the authority of a teacher, performed consultations, monitored hospitalized animals, and learned to prepare medicines.

On the front lines

Beginning in 1763, during major epizootics in France, Bourgelat taught the best students everything they needed to know in less than a year to send as many as possible to combat the prevailing cattle disease, rinderpest. Soon after, "The plague was stayed and the health of stock restored, through the assistance rendered to agriculture by veterinary science and art," Krogmann wrote.

National Veterinary School of Lyon
A late 19th century photo of the National Veterinary School of Lyon in France.

When the school was founded two years earlier, the king had given it only a short-term grant. This left the school's long-term prospects in jeopardy. But after the Lyon students proved their worth in managing and preventing epizootic diseases, Bertin and the king were convinced. The king's decree in 1764 that Lyon be given the title Royal Veterinary School meant that it would be supported by the state, according to Bost.

That same year, Bourgelat was designated director and inspector general of the Lyon Veterinary School "and of all such schools which exist or which shall exist in our Kingdom" as well as commissioner general of the royal horse-breeding establishments. By then, Lyon had 36 new enrollees; enrollment would later stabilize at 30 new students per year.

For Bertin, the Lyon school was only the first step in contributing to the country's animal and agricultural health. In 1764, he ordered Bourgelat to create another veterinary school. This time it was located in Alfort, just outside Paris. Bourgelat established the standards for the two veterinary schools in 1777 and would continue to teach until he died Jan. 3, 1779, at age 67.

The veterinary profession will be celebrating a major milestone this year—the 250th anniversary of the world's first veterinary school, which was founded in Lyon, France, in 1761. That was shortly followed by the Alfort veterinary school, near Paris, in 1764, both at the initiative of Claude Bourgelat.

By setting up the world's first veterinary training institutions, Bourgelat helped create the veterinary profession as we now know it. Since then, scores of veterinarians have made substantial contributions to the world's knowledge of animal health and welfare as well as public health and biomedical research.

In honor of World Veterinary Year—and all the practitioners who have come before—JAVMA News will highlight international veterinarians from the past 250 years.

These individuals have been selected on the basis of their contributions to the field of veterinary medicine as well as the world at large. And they represent a wide range of nationalities and come from various backgrounds and time periods.

These "legends" identified and developed cures for diseases, wrote best-selling books, transcended gender barriers, led nations, and founded educational institutions. In telling their stories, JAVMA News hopes veterinarians and the public in general will have a greater appreciation for what the profession has done and will continue to do for society.

Look for these stories in the first-of-the-month issues of JAVMA.

Illustration: Scroll banner