Exhibition tells history of profession through books

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The National Library of Medicine is hosting an exhibition this year showcasing original illustrated manuscripts and early printed books from the library's collection that feature the care and treatment of horses over the past five centuries.

The exhibition, "From Craft to Profession: The Transition from Horse Farrier to Professional Veterinarian," is one of the World Veterinary Year celebrations that recognize the 250th anniversary of the founding of the first veterinary school in Lyon, France.

Michael North, head of Rare Books and Early Manuscripts at the NLM's History of Medicine Division, curated the event.

Equine art at the NLM
(Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine)

"One thing I observed was the people who were treating horses before 1761 were using a lot of the same knowledge that was in play for humans. They believed in humoral theory, so they used hot compresses and bloodletting," North said.

One practice that lasted longer among farriers than doctors was the use of astrology to make diagnoses. Farriers would make astrological charts that showed horses were susceptible to certain diseases or that parts of their body were subject to injury, depending on the season or what constellations were in the sky. This would affect the treatment they would select for the horse, North said.

This use of astrology was also common in human medical practice, but had generally ended by the early 16th century, though for horses it continued. North posits that this was because farriers were less literate than medical doctors and did not keep up with the latest conventions and knowledge.

"That's what Claude (Bourgelat) wanted to do—bring the science forward for horses, so they could perform the same kinds of experiments and measurements on horses that they had on humans, and to compare the two systems (physiology) and disease patterns," North said.

In 1761, French riding master Claude Bourgelat founded the Veterinary School of Lyon, marking the beginning of the scientific study of horses, eventually replacing the traditional art of farriery. Farriers were often blacksmiths and the equivalent of barber surgeons for horses who learned their trade through apprenticeship.

In the century after Bourgelat's school opened, the practice of veterinary medicine became a credentialed profession requiring an academic degree and strict licensing, replacing the old system of farriers and apprenticeships.

The exhibit at the NLM, a division of the National Institutes of Health, showcases its extensive collection of rare veterinary medical texts, many published before 1800.

"Probably 98 percent (of the books) are related to horses because that was such an important feature economically and militarily. The dog hasn't come on the scene nor cats. They were there, but people were not writing about them or studying them much," North said.

Some of the most treasured items include a manuscript on horses published in 1583 in southwestern Germany and a reprint of the second veterinary text printed in the United States, which was published in 1764 in Wilmington, Del.

The public is invited to visit from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and from 8:30 a.m. to noon Saturdays (except Labor Day weekend), through Oct. 7 in the NLM History of Medicine Reading Room, Building 38, on the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Md.

To view a slide show of the exhibition on Flickr.com, visit www.flickr.com/photos/esteemedhelga/sets/72157627057355897/show.