Local Heroes (and Villains)
A ROTHIEMAY MAN - WELL AHEAD OF HIS TIME
In 2011, the 79th General Session of the United Nations World Organisation for Animal Health held a ceremony at which it was declared that, finally, Rinderpest had been wiped out across the globe. The photograph below shows a group of distinguished people heading work responsible for the eradication of the virus; work which has been described as ‘the greatest achievement in veterinary medicine’: the eradication of only the second animal disease from the face of the earth.
In Britain, in the nineteenth century, the disease was known as cattle plague and was of considerable concern to the government of the day because of its impact on the supply of meat for the national dinner tables.
Photo © Courtesy of ILRI
A young Vet, a mid-nineteenth century Rothiemay man, was among a relatively small number of people who understood that the only way to stop the spread of the cattle plague infection was not to speculate, procrastinate or to try harsh, foolish and useless treatments, but to enforce slaughter and immediate burial of affected cattle in their skins. Removal of skins for hides for leather, which farmers sometimes undertook themselves and certainly, slaughterers did as part of their job, only served to ensure the likelihood of increased contagion. The Vet concerned was George Stewart MRCVS of Milltown of Rothiemay. He was one of the very first few members of The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and was an extraordinary example of a young man aiming to make a difference to animals and their owners in a period of time when the profession was striving hard for recognition of its professional status. In terms of the Rinderpest virus, George was almost a century and a half ahead of his time in understanding disease control.
|George was the son of George
Stewart and Mary Lauder of Huntly who, after their marriage,
moved to Rothiemay to live next to the Deveron River. He was
their first child and he trained as a Vet in both London and in
Edinburgh, unusual at a time when very many who treated animals
had no training professional or qualifications at all. In
London, his studies would have covered anatomy, physiology and
pathology, primarily of the horse, under Professors William
Sewell and Charles Spooner. After studying there at the
Veterinary College, he went on to further academic study in
Edinburgh at William Dick's School (now popularly known as the
Dick Vet, University of Edinburgh) under the man himself as well
as other tutors such as Professor Thomas Strangeways, and Mr
William Worthington. As a result, George became a proud Member
of The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, something he
emphasised on his Census return in 1851.
His father had died in 1840 so did not see his son qualify, but his mother, Mary, who lived with him must have been very proud indeed of the young man who attained such professional standing when there were a good number of 'horse doctors' and 'cow leeches' operating businesses in Britain. It is interesting to note that his younger brother, Alexander, (1838-1900) saw what George had achieved, and what the future of the veterinary profession could be for those willing to study and observe ethical practises, and he went on to qualify himself, graduating from Dick Vet in 1866, to become MRCVS also.
|Today, we are used to veterinary surgeons employing all that medical and veterinary science has to offer alongside a considerable array of diagnostic tools, advanced drugs and surgical interventions undreamed of - even fifty years ago. Imagine, then, a world where the antibiotic had yet to be invented, its precursor - the sulphonamide - was unknown, where x-raying an animal such as a horse was un-thought of and where the understanding of foot and mouth disease was in its infancy. All hampered by a government wedded to the idea of 'free trade' without an understanding that free trade in animals 'also included free trade in their diseases' (Pattison). Both live animals and the bones, hooves and hides of dead ones were imported into Britain and thus carried infections by bacteria and by virus – something that no-one, at that time, understood.||
shows a set of 19th century
George and his brother Alexander would have been familiar with various livestock and equine diseases. These included ‘gleet’ (sinus inflammation), ‘mallenders and sallenders’ (scaly skin down the front of the hind cannons), ‘staggers’ (hypomagnesaemia), ‘grease heel’, ‘hoof rot’, ‘bony heel’, ‘split heel’, ‘chapped hock’, (foot and hoof problems associated with poor conditions), ‘lung stagnation’, ‘scratches, ‘sore tongue’, ‘founder’ and a host of other ills affecting horses, cattle and sheep. All these ailments, which sound odd, but affect animals today too, George treated by the methods of the time – many of which involved hazardous compounds, dangerous methods and not a little courage on the part of the Vet.
The week's work for a country Vet like George in, say, 1850, could be enormously varied. He farmed several acres to support himself, his widowed mother and his siblings, a nephew and living-in servants, as well as helping support his brother to go to veterinary college to train as a vet too. He would have kept horses himself because pony and trap were his only means of transport out to see clients and patients across a big area. These, of course, needed to be in very good health and tip top condition since they were a moving advertisement for his professional abilities and his Practice. He would have seen horses aplenty – carriage horses at the grand houses around, probably Rothiemay Castle being one of them; and plough horses on the farms, as well as cattle and sheep. People did not use the services of a Vet in quite the way we do today, but if you were breeding cattle, for example, and aiming for top prices in the sale ring or wanted to found a breeding line, then engaging the Vet for help was a necessity.
|Into the midst of a hardworking - and no
doubt satisfying life - came the dreadful cattle plague in 1865.
Brought into the UK by imports of live cattle from Europe, it
soon spread across the country through towns, villages and
isolated hamlets and fresh cases were reported each day. The
newspapers of the time make very grim reading. Although in 1848
the government had passed an Act 'to prevent the introduction of
Contagious Disorders among sheep, cattle, horses and other
animals' this was having little effect in the outbreak of
Rinderpest in this country.
The Act didn't establish the kind of rigorous and precise methods of dealing with the disease - and thus prohibiting its spread - that we are used to today. Instead the government thought that the measures being taken on the Continent would be all that was needed to prevent the plague affecting our bovine population and a laissez faire attitude prevailed. “How wrong can we be?”, George must have thought! Containing (quarantining) sick animals, slaughtering if necessary and – most important – burying such carcasses in their skin, so that no hides, bones or hooves or hair could transmit the plague further, was what he knew had to be done. He must have learnt, at the Dick Vet, of Lancisi's 18th century similar - but highly unpopular - recommendations for this in Italy; but he would have realised that short term loss could only mean long term gain.
The loss of an animal, particularly milk and beef cows in an area beginning to develop its markets for high quality supplies, would have been anathema to local farmers and landowners. However, George – and it must be said – a number of his local professional colleagues – were adamant that this was the only way to stop the disease spreading and possibly annihilating the whole of the Banffshire and Aberdeenshire herds.
Photo: The Rinderpest virus under the modern microscope
In the Aberdeen Journal of 13th September 1865 we see: -
following report was sent in by the Inspectors to the Convenor of
the Committee in the parishes of Huntly, Forgue, & c, on Friday:
-This is to certify that a cow belonging to Mrs Booth, Westerton,
died of Rinderpest on the morning of the 6th inst., and was buried
with the skin. Today we find a cow and two calves ill of Rinderpest,
and have caused them to be destroyed in our presence, and buried
with their skins. The above is the whole of Mrs Booth's stock, and
her houses will be disinfected as soon as possible. Two cows
belonging to James Ogg were pastured in a field with Mrs Booth's,
but were separated on her first cow taking ill, and up to the
present time they have shown no symptom of the disease.
GEO. STEWART V.S.
M A SNOWBALL V.S.”
(Matthew Snowball was the Huntly Veterinary Surgeon).
and in the same edition of the newspaper: -
Garmond Village September 6th 1865
“We, the undersigned, have seen a cow and a calf, both of which were affected with Rinderpest, which we have destroyed, and we confirm the report given by Mr George Stuart (sic), Veterinary Surgeon, Rothiemay, to the parish Committee, on 31st August 1865.
JOHN MORRIS V.S.
GEO. STEWART V.S.
H G BRUCE V.S.” (John Morris was a Vet from Old Machar and Hugh Bruce was a Vet from New Deer, Aberdeenshire.)
George would have had the task of diagnosing these cases of
Rinderpest that he saw, informing the owners - who could see their
livelihoods disintegrating before their eyes – and persuading,
pacifying and yet enforcing the need to take the action to slaughter.
Such was his determination and that of his veterinary colleagues, to
act for what would be the greater good, that alongside his normal case
load and the demands of this outbreak that he also spoke at farmers
meetings and to parish committees to help others understand the need
for this method of control.
The advice to slaughter would definitely not have been welcome, but it was advice that was necessary and eventually became recognised as the only way to contain the plague. His actions in giving this professional advice and overseeing the gruesome outcomes got very wide coverage in the newspapers, so much so that it appeared in the media in Australia: -
The Perth Gazette and West Australian Times Friday 1st June 1866.
All in all George Stewart's professional life was very busy and very hard work. He never married and had little time for himself; perhaps an occasional bit of fishing or a walk with his dogs but little else. Such is the lot of the country Vet. Out in all weathers, often in ferocious gales, snow storms and driving rain, he died in 1874 age just 56 years.
His epitaph on his headstone in Rothiemay Churchyard reads: -
memory of GEORGE STEWART V.S. died Milltown of Rothiemay 21 August
1874 aged 56.
One of the ablest veterinary surgeons of his day, he averted a great disaster to the
agricultural community by his prompt action in connection with
the outbreak of Rinderpest in the year 1865.
Erected in remembrance of his valued services & of his parents
GEORGE STEWART 1790-1840 and MARY LAUDER STEWART 1791-1869”
A fitting comment, by those who knew him, on a man who believed in the training he had received, the qualifications he held, the profession in which he served and the prompt action he took to save the reputation of his farming community. A man well ahead of his time.