The 44th International Congress of the World Association for the History of Veterinary Medicine, South Africa.
In February 2020, WAHVM held its 44th international congress in South Africa, to coincide with the centenary celebrations of veterinary education in South Africa, and the South African Veterinary Association. 45 delegates representing 10 different countries met at the beautiful Farm Inn Conference Centre outside Pretoria for three stimulating days of veterinary history. Under the outstanding local leadership of Gareth Bath and the Veterinary History Society of South Africa, with excellent conference support provided by Corne Engelbrecht and team, it continued the WAHVM tradition of bringing together communities that normally occupy different professional niches: active and retired veterinarians, and academic historians.
Keynote speaker Sandra Swart of Stellenbosch University provided a rousing start to the congress with her account of ‘The equine experiment in Africa.’ Exploring human-horse relationships in Southern Africa over the past 400 years, she recounted the ways in human societies both changed and were changed by their interactions with horses. Two other fascinating keynotes were delivered by retired veterinarians. Dr Gideon Bruckner, former Deputy General of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), delivered a historical overview of the OIE’s relationship with countries in southern Africa, while Dr Rudolph Bigalke, former Director of the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute and Deputy Director General of the Department of Agriculture, spoke on ‘Historic highlights of South African veterinary R&D in tropical diseases.’
The ‘free topics’ session attracted its usual eclectic array of papers ranging widely across time and place: from animal settlement in ancient Southern Mesopotamia to early medieval veterinary knowledge in Ireland; the Civil Veterinary Service in the Dutch East Indies to the history of South Africa’s second veterinary faculty; cowpox in late-18th century England to foot and mouth disease in mid-20th century North America; veterinary collections in Munich to veterinary antibiotic use in Norway. Of particular interest was the paper delivered by Nicole Welk-Joerger (USA), winner of the Early Career Scholar Competition, on ‘Defining antibiotic feeds in the US in the wake of resistance.’ This offered a fascinating account of Rumensin, an antibiotic-like ionophore drug that was used to promote productive efficiency in farm animals.
As one of the two conference themes, tropical disease was a popular topic among South African veterinary speakers. Their contributions explored the individuals and institutions responsible for investigating these conditions, and brought the subject to life with personal memories and experiences. As the father of veterinary science in South Africa, Arnold Theiler, featured frequently in these talks. His Swiss origins and tendency to look to Europe for men to staff his laboratories meant that he appeared also in papers addressing the other conference theme, ‘vet histories of international cooperation.’ It was particularly appropriate, therefore, that delegates should have the opportunity to visit his historic laboratory at Onderstepoort, to tour the modern veterinary institute and University of Pretoria Faculty of Veterinary Science that sprang from it, and to explore the South African National Veterinary Museum. Along with the welcome reception and excellent congress dinner, this trip combined social and intellectual enjoyment, as delegates refreshed old acquaintances, made new ones, and built their knowledge of veterinary activities – past and present – in South Africa and across the world.