A Quick History of Veterinary Medicine

November 4, 2014

vet history bainbridgeBy Linda Cole

Modern day veterinarians have an essential role in the health and welfare of our pets, as well as livestock and wildlife. Vets are well-versed in the science of animal health, and they promote public health by identifying and combating infectious zoonotic diseases that can be passed from animals to humans. Advances in medical science have provided veterinary professionals with sophisticated equipment, tests, procedures and medicines to treat our pets. However, the history of veterinary science dates back much further than you may realize.

The first known people to dabble in the field of veterinary medicine began around 9000 BC in Middle East countries including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Iraq. Sheepherders had a crude understanding of medical skills which were used to treat their dogs and other animals. From 4000 to 3000 BC, Egyptians took earlier medical skills and made further advancements. Historical records and Egyptian hieroglyphs record how they used herbs to treat and promote good health in domesticated animals.

Vedic literature, which was written around 1500 BC, refers to four sacred texts from India written in the Sanskrit language that forms the basis of the Hindu religion. The Kahun Papyrus from Egypt dates back to 1900 BC. Both texts are likely the first written accounts of veterinary medicine. One of the sacred texts documents India’s first Buddhist king, Asoka, who ensured there were two kinds of medicine: one for humans and one for animals. If he discovered there was no medicine available for one or the other, he ordered healing herbs to be bought and planted where they were needed.

The Kahun Papyrus is the oldest known papyrus medical text. It’s divided into 34 sections that deal with specific topics. One of the topics is animal gynecology. Tomb drawings predating the Kahun Papyrus by a couple thousand years document early Egyptian understanding of gynecology. Trained specialists were skilled obstetricians and given the name of “overseer of cattle.” They were charged with examining cattle, attending to pregnancies, and the birthing of calves to ensure their health and survival.

Archaeologists found fragments of a papyrus that was a medical textbook from somewhere around 1850 BC, indicating that Egyptians were familiar with the anatomy of animals, could recognize early warning signs of certain diseases in dogs, birds, fish and cattle, and used specific treatments to deal with them. The Romans, Greeks, Babylonians, Hindus, Arabs and Hebrews also practiced animal medicine. A man named Urlugaledinna, who lived in Mesopotamia in 3000 BC, was considered an expert in his ability to heal animals. Around 500 BC, a Greek scientist named Alcmaeon dissected animals to study them.

Early attempts to regulate and organize the treatment of animals were mainly focused on horses because of their economic importance to society. During the Middle Ages, farriers combined their trade of horseshoeing with general horse doctoring. When the Lord Mayor of London, which is different from the Mayor of London, learned about the poor care horses in London were receiving in 1356, he persuaded all farriers within a seven mile radius of the city to form a fellowship to improve and regulate how they treated horses. The fellowship led to the creation in 1674 of the Worshipful Company of Farriers.

The first veterinary school was founded in Lyon, France in 1761 by Claude Bourgelat, and that’s when the profession of veterinary medicine officially began. The school focused on studying the anatomy and diseases of sheep, horses and cattle in an effort to combat cattle deaths from a plague in France. Cattle plagues were common throughout history, but attempts to learn how to fight microorganisms had to wait until the invention of the microscope sometime in the 1590s. The first vaccinations for cattle were developed in 1712 and used to eradicate a plague in Europe.

Over the next ten years, veterinary schools were established in Germany, Sweden and Denmark. In 1791, the London Veterinary College was established and developed vet history anneveterinary science at a professional level dedicated to animal medicine. The wellbeing and health of horses was their initial focus for years, because of the use of horses in the Army. Eventually they turned their attention to cattle and other livestock, and finally added dogs and other animals.

The first veterinary school established in the United States was the Veterinary College of Philadelphia in 1852, which operated until 1866. In 1883, the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania was established and is the oldest accredited veterinary school still in operation. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) was established in 1863, and the Bureau of Animal Industry under the USDA was set up in 1884 and in operation until 1900. Its purpose was to protect the public from infectious diseases through contaminated meat, eradicate diseases in animals and improve the quality of livestock.

Top photo by Bainbridge Bethesda/Flickr
Bottom photo by Anne Worner/Flickr

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