June 3, 2012

James Herriot's ongoing influence on the veterinary profession


I read his first book when I was 15, because I already wanted to be a vet, which was a good enough reason to spend hard earned pocket money on a newly released, hard cover version of "If Only They Could Talk".  It was the first of many of his books I read, reread, and years later I got the children some of his short stories paperbacks . I still have copies of all of his books and dip in and out for a laugh or a cry regularly.  

His legacy to Yorkshire tourism has been huge - but worldwide, a generation of vets and pet owners formed a lasting impression of what rural practice was like in the thirties when he graduated. As a piece of UK history, a slice of life in those times, that had gone by the time he even wrote about them, it is wonderful. 

A fellow blogger, recently visited Thirsk ( better known as the fictional Darrowby) in Yorkshire and saw the museum dedicated to the man and his life.  Some great photos galleries of it and a web page are available. 


Mieke put up some great pictures of it inside and wrote about it  and I got to thinking about the urban legend among the profession that he had committed suicide after a lifelong battle with depression.  I know he battled "Brucellosis" which cause fevers and sweating, joint pain and depression.

It was also mentioned in All Things Bright and Beautiful, one volume in the memoirs of James Herriot, the pen name of Scottish veterinarian James Alfred Wight. In this case, the disease ruined an aspiring dairy farmer's herd and forced him to abandon the business. Wight also describes the effect of brucellosis on himself, referring to it as having "funny turns," in his fifth volume of memoirs, "Every Living Thing."  http://military.wikia.com/wiki/Brucellosis

He definitely did have depression throughout his life: You can read about that here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1314863/James-Herriots-private-hell-The-shocking-truth-man-TVs-famous-vet.html

I did some googling yesterday and the urban legend was partly correct. It was Donald Sinclair, the inspiration for Siegreid Farnon, who overdosed on barbiturates, two weeks after the death of his wife of 53 years, and four months after Alf Wight died of prostate cancer.  Another statistic. I have written before of the high suicide rat for vets - mainly due to the ease of obtaining the drugs to do it. In this case grief was more the cause than the stress and burnout of the professional demands of this career. 


Meanwhile, millions of copies of his books have sold; the tv series ran for many years and two movies were made. While at vet school at Massey in Palmerston North we had no television and were all annoyed at missing the programme we only saw in the holidays. One day my flatmate acquired a radio cassette player that had a 2 inch tv screen in it, and with careful placement on a chair in front of us, five people could lie face down on a bed and watch the show. Just listening to the theme music brings it all back so clearly. 

Times have changed.


" One swallow does not make a summer, nor does one lady with exceptional physical endowments prove that the veterinary profession is suitable for women." So said The Field in 1922.

Eighty years on, it is hard to believe that such a statement could ever have been made in earnest. In my final year at veterinary school, I am surrounded by 52 women students in a class of 76. They are bright, determined and they have studied hard for five years for the toughest degree exams there are. It is no longer a question of whether the profession is suitable for woman, but of what the profession will become now it has so few men.

Veterinary medicine is undoubtedly the girls' choice. As Maureen Aitken, a former Royal Veterinary College women's representative, puts it: "It's a caring profession, demanding intelligence and dedication. It is one to which woman are well suited."

This is just as well. A recent poll of girls aged 11 to 16 found that becoming a vet was their top ambition. Female applicants to veterinary schools outnumber males by more than three to one - the highest ratio for any professional degree subject. This year, Ucas received 4,868 applications from females: 77 per cent of the total.

The trend is not new. If every applicant had been accepted, 70 per cent of vets would have been female as far back as 1949, and the male-dominated novels of James Herriot would have been very different.

The association doesn't seem to know why there are so few male vets today. "It is not so much that boys aren't applying, as that more girls are gaining places," it says. But Ucas figures show that the same percentage of male applicants is accepted every year, while absolute numbers of male applications have fallen sharply since 1998.

Isn't it alarming, then, that that the association's president should say he is "quite frankly not sure that there is anything the BVA can do, or needs to do, to encourage more males to apply to vet schools"?

The profession can and must do something. It must go out to schools and advertise itself as a serious career option for talented young men. It must encourage boys who are capable of making the grade to buckle down and do the necessary work.

If boys are not applying because they see the profession as too academic, too female dominated and too poorly remunerated, the profession must correct these perceptions. It must encourage teachers and parents to support boys who are capable of becoming vets but lack the discipline needed to achieve the required A-levels.

I know from experience that teacher support makes a huge difference. My first year A-level performance was so poor that I had to beg my chemistry teacher to predict me an A grade. Another teacher might not have relented and I could have lost my place, not because of a lack of ability but because of a lack of maturity. As it was, my teacher was willing to give me a chance. On the strength of my predicted grades, I was offered a place.

Veterinary medicine is a wonderful vocation, for both men and woman. Those who make the grade are highly sought-after, not just as vets, but in fields as diverse as research, industry and law.

It is time that the profession began to encourage more male applicants. Otherwise, many bright young men will lose out. The biggest loser, though, will be the profession itself. 

The problem is not that women don't make great vets. They do. But they work less years, need more time out for children, want more part time work, less after hours, and are less likely to want to purchase and run a practice so the profession is heading towards corporate ownership where ets are employed and only do clinical skills - a trend that is already happenign n human medical practice. It may even be a good thing,,, but the real problem is the shortage of vets to work in the rural animal side of food production, biosecurty etc


Jim Paice, the Agriculture Minister, warned that more vets than ever are needed in the countryside to stop outbreaks of animal diseases in intensive units like swine or bird flu.

But the latest statistics show that young vets are predominantly women who prefer to specialise in treating pets in cities or certain conditions like canine disease.

A study by the University of Newcastle found the proportion of time vets in private practice spend treating animals used for food halved between 1998 and 2006.

Mr Paice warned that the lack of country vets able to treat large animals and ensure farms are disease free could lead to food safety issues.

Mr Paice said: “The countryside needs vets with the right skills to help maintain a reliable supply of food. Farmers rely on vets to keep their animals and businesses healthy – that’s why we need the whole food chain from farmers to supermarkets to make sure their needs are clearly understood by the veterinary industry.”

Mr Locke said modern day vets can still be a pillar of the community but their job is quite different as farmers tend to be more educated and do a lot of treatment themselves. Instead of being called out in the night for lambing or a sick calf, vets spend a lot more time on preventive medicine. Vets within a practice tend to specialise and spend a lot more time looking at the farm as a whole rather than individual animals. This means carrying out more regular inspections and giving farmers advice rather than just being called out in emergency situations.


This is a great article on the realities of life as a country vet in Yorkshire today...



In two specific ways, Watkinson is a traditional country vet. The first is that he has a Y chromosome. In the past decade, 80 per cent of graduates from veterinary college have been women, drawn to the profession by its caring image as well as television docu-soaps and dramas such as Animal Hospital and Vets' School. This feminisation of the profession has meant a rapid decline in the number of vets willing to do farm work: only one in 10, compared to 50 per cent 20 years ago. That's the other way in which Watkinson is a traditionalist. He specialises in farm animals and, as such, belongs to a dying breed. The government was warned of an 'impending shortage' of large farm animal vets by a parliamentary committee five years ago, and though it pledged an 'urgent action plan', no action has been taken, urgent or otherwise. It is predicted that one in five remaining farm vets will quit within 10 years.

This guy wrote his own book about the veterinary profession.....



“James Herriot has a lot to answer for,” he says, glancing nervously around the crowded cafe at the National Museum of Scotland, as if expecting to be ambushed at any moment. “What most people don’t realise is that he suffered from depression, to some extent due to his job. Yet he still produced them rose-tinted stories that have shaped people’s idea of what being a vet is like.”

Whether it’s the genial country practitioner delivering newborn foals on his way home to a hearty lunch; or modern reality-TV heroes saving doe-eyed pets with the help of high-tech gadgetry, Artmeier believes romanticised portrayals are responsible for thousands of ill-prepared graduates entering a profession so endemically stressful that it might just be the death of them.

If that sounds like the overblown claim of a veterinary Victor Meldrew, the view is disturbingly bolstered by an industry report. Published last year in the journal of the British Veterinary Association (BVA), the study found the suicide rate among vets to be a staggering four times the national average – and double that of doctors and dentists. The most common method of death was by injecting or swallowing poisonous chemicals intended for animal euthanasia. Long hours, emotional isolation and a lack of coping and communication skills have been seen as contributing factors.


The secret of the success of the James Herriot books is not the tales about the animals: it was the way he wrote so movingly about the people who own them. It takes a special vet to be able to care for the human side of the relationship. Passionate caring for animals is great, but alone, it is not enough for people working in this field and yet it is what attracts them to it, in droves. If you are thinking of being a vet or a vet nurse or vet technician, please stop and think about whether you can do both roles. After all, the public may be a pain in the neck at times, but your income relies on them, not the animals!


Whatever lies ahead for vets, I am so glad to have been a part of it for the last 33 years.

Thanks Mieke for reminding me of all this :)


Posted via email from Four Paws and Whiskers


  1. Thank you so much for linking to my blog - something that I wrote being of inspiration for someone else to write their own bit about it and think about it is certainly the biggest reward there is for non-commercial blogging!

    I never thought much about the male/female ratio in vets, but now that you mention it, the animal clinic where I used to take all our cats until early March of this year when my Pukky died, seems to be almost exclusively staffed by ladies. The owner and "main" vet is a man, but most of the other vets are female. Last time I went there, though, I remember that a young lad of maybe 18 or 19 was behind the counter, being taught by one of the older (female) assistants I knew from previous visits.
    Here's hoping this young lad will stay in the profession!

  2. Well that's been quite an eye-opener for me. I, too, read and watched the Herriot books. It is the case, too, that all of the youngsters whom I know who have expressed a desire to be vets have been female. Most (but not all) have dropped out for one reason or another - often because of the stringent academic requirements. Oddly whilst most people do not realise how well qualified people have to be in many professions I think most people do know how well qualified vets are. It has always been my impression that one can become a lawyer, for example, with a mediocre qualification but you cannot become a vet without achieving a much higher standard of academic excellence.

    1. Sadly that is true - but although the work and standard required is high, the pay rate is never going to match that of a doctor - or as we call them "human vets"....
      Ultimately, I think men tend to analyse this more and often go where the money is seen to be - which is why many do accounting or law, or medicine.

      SInce you are right in your other comment, that there are no subsidies for pet healthcare, people do become irate when professional fees are charged compared to fees asked for human healthcare... although I usually feel a bit the same when paying for legal fees. I dont begrudge it really - I just dont waste time when I am in with them...

      I have often had comments on why didn't i do medicine - and frankly I am sure I would have hated it! I love working with people, but not sick, drunk, people that I then have to handle. Dealing with owners is fine and I can do anything with animals - blood, smells, gore.... but cut my finger, and it is a race to see if I can get a bandage on without fainting... I just don't handle that. I cant watch open heart human surgery on tv, but I can operate on an animal heart. I can bleed a dog blood donor from the jugular, but I can't give blood myself. I did wonder for a while if I could handle paediatrics but the thought of all the pre training on adults convinced me not to go there.... thankfully!

  3. Lots of interesting stuff here, and thanks for sharing! My Dad used to love the television programme, and would watch it any time it aired, even if it was a re-run.


Comments welcome....always love to hear what you think!


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