Resurrecting the past

Historians showcase postcards, antiquated texts
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The history of veterinary medicine is long and complex, evolving in fits and starts. Members of the American Veterinary Medical History Society attempting to capture snapshots of the profession’s transformation hosted the Smithcors History of Veterinary Medicine Symposium at the AVMA Annual Convention July 21 in Chicago. Eleven sessions covered topics ranging from presidential pets to the pasteurization of milk.

Early (pre-1907) postcard depicting a dog and cat ambulance operated by Dr. J.J. Mamer, “the P.T. Barnum of the veterinary world.” The postcard also shows he was running a kennel and is one of the earliest documentations of such.(Images courtesy of C. Trenton Boyd)

A man of letters

The symposium kicked off with the presentation “From Craft to Profession, the Transition from Horse Farrier to Professional Veterinarian,” by Michael North, head of Rare Books and Early Manuscripts at the National Library of Medicine’s History of Medicine Division.

He focused on early literature from the preprofessional era, as this is one of the strength of the NLM’s collection.

In that time—that is, before the 18th century—a number of so-called professionals cared for animals. Farriers occupied a large role in this field. Farriers, similar to surgeons as opposed to physicians, would give horses purgatives or do bloodlettings or help with foaling. They also addressed hoof health, but they did a lot more than that. They were the primary caregivers.

It also wasn’t uncommon for farmers, their family members, or their neighbors to look after animals. North said there’s little evidence that medical doctors or surgeons treated animals, but that doesn’t mean it never happened.

During this time, there was a rich and varied veterinary literature in vernacular languages such as German and Italian, as opposed to texts in Greek or Latin, which were used by those wealthy enough to afford a classical education.

One book, “Rossarzneibuch” by Walter Von Nitzschwitz, described treatments for wounds a horse might sustain during battle and was published in 1583.

Astrological charts were big at that time—used for determining the timing of treatment—as was the humoral theory of disease.

Interesting enough, the more ancient a text was, the more likely it was to believed to be true, North said, so even the vernacular literature written in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries referred back to ancient times or claimed that it was ancient so people would read it.

Origins of an association

In honor of the AVMA’s 150th anniversary, Dr. Howard Erickson, emeritus professor of physiology and the history of veterinary medicine at Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine, gave a talk titled “The History of the AVMA: A Slow, Shaky Beginning.”

Dr. Erickson related that the first veterinary associations in the U.S. were the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture (1805) and the American Veterinary Association (1854). Both were founded in Philadelphia, which was the medical capital of the colonies. The AVA was established by Dr. Robert Jennings, who was a pioneer of veterinary education as well. He started potentially the first veterinary school in the U.S. with the Veterinary College of Philadelphia, which was chartered in 1852; however, few students applied, and fewer graduated. The AVA eventually morphed into the U.S. Veterinary Medical Association when Dr. Jennings and other Philadelphia veterinarians resolved to form a national veterinary association, resulting in a fateful meeting June 9 and 10, 1863, at the Astor House in New York City. (The USVMA became the AVMA in 1898.)

Dr. Erickson said the Association grew very slowly during its first 30 to 40 years of existence, gaining few members annually and expelling some or removing them from the roster for nonpayment of dues. The Keystone Veterinary Association in Pennsylvania (1882) and the Missouri Valley Veterinary Association (1894) were actually larger than the AVMA for many years.

Send me a postcard

Another presentation, “What Veterinarians Did: Proven in Postcards,” by C. Trenton Boyd, librarian curator of medical and veterinary historical collections at the University of Missouri, delved into the everyday depictions of veterinarians at work around the turn of the 20th century.

Two veterinarians wait for cowboys to cast a horse. The postcard is from Nebraska and was printed circa 1908-1911.

Boyd has the largest collection of veterinary-related postcards, approximately 8,000. About 300 of his postcards feature U.S. veterinary clinics, which, most often, didn’t appear to be much more than shacks. (One featured not only an arena and clinic but also an ice skating rink.) There are also many postcards that show mobile veterinary clinics with hand-cranked centrifuges, and horse-drawn ambulances.

The time frame when postcards were popular happened to coincide with the transition from horses to cars for transportation, and thus, the accompanying paradigm shift in veterinary medicine. A Model T and a horse could be seen in one postcard depicting a veterinary practice. Also back then, practitioners typically advertised themselves as veterinarians and dentists.

Then again, not much has changed in some aspects of practice. Boyd showed a reminder card from a clinic in San Antonio in 1931 that told clients to bring in their dog to get preventive treatment for hydrophobia (rabies). And then there are the postcard advertisements, which comprise the largest category of his collection. Boyd has everything from a postcard featuring “Dr. Salsbury’s Fowl Pox Vaccine” to one for a “one-spot flea killer” in 1940 that also had a ruler on it to ensure that clients kept it.

What’s in a name?

In attendance at the symposium was Ann Smithcors, the widow of acclaimed veterinary historian, educator, publisher, and editor Dr. J. Frederick Smithcors, for whom the event was named.

He wrote “The American Veterinary Profession” in 1963 to celebrate the AVMA’s 100th anniversary. Dr. Smithcors also founded the American Veterinary Medical History Society and was its first president. Plus, he taught the first course on the history of veterinary medicine in the United States at Michigan State University and donated his 1,200-volume library of historical veterinary texts to the Washington State University Libraries in 1978.