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The 40th International Congress of the World Association for the History of Veterinary Medicine, Utrecht.

Dr Abigail Woods MA MSc VetMB PhD MRCVS

The 2012 Utrecht meeting of the WAHVM was one of the largest in recent years, with 112 delegates attending from 22 different countries.

Coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the Royal Netherlands Veterinary Association, it selected the history of veterinary associations as its main theme, which was addressed in a keynote presentation by welcomed Prof. Wijnart Mijnhardt, head of Utrecht University’s Descartes Centre for the history and philosophy of the sciences and humanities. Other papers explored developments in Britain, Denmark, Switzerland, Germany, the USA, Venezuela, Turkey, Norway, Australia, the Netherlands, Romania and Mexico. They showed that in the west, many associations were founded in the mid-to-late 19th century, and usually for two specific purposes: to improve veterinary science by offering a forum for vets to exchange insights and experiences, and to win legal protection for the profession against competing, unqualified animal healers. In the new world, veterinary associations were founded after those in Europe, largely because the profession itself developed later. However, they encountered many of the same drivers and challenges. Recognition of the shared veterinary challenge of controlling epizootic diseases spread by international trade also drove the formation of the World Veterinary Association, as its past-president, Tjeerd Jorna, explained in his keynote address.

The remainder of the programme was open to free communications. Several papers, ranging across Nazi Germany, 1970s Korea, post-civil war Spain, and colonial India addressed the interesting question of how prevailing political regimes impacted on veterinary education and work. They included an address by Dr Saurabh Mishra of Sheffield University, UK, the winner of WAHVM’s Young Scholar’s prize. Other papers focussed more directly on veterinary knowledge and practice. There were tantalising glimpses of the medieval practice of horse medicine in Armenia, sow-spaying in Austria, plague in North America, and One Health in mid-19th century Britain. There were also poster displays, and brief reports by PhD students and early career scholars on their work in progress.

The social side of the programme was not neglected by our hosts, the Netherlands Veterinary History Society, whose efficient organisation and exemplary hospitality made for a very smooth and enjoyable conference. A welcome reception, offered by the Mayor of Utrecht, took place in the former dissecting room of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. The high temperature of the room inspired reflections on the smell and conditions experienced by past generations of veterinary students, and the reasons why the Faculty chose to relocate to more modern premises!

 On the second evening, delegates were transported to the Railway Museum in Utrecht, located in an old railway station. After a tour of the restored waiting rooms and train carriages, dinner was served in the main hall of the station. A soul band from the veterinary faculty provided excellent music, which inspired dancing from some of the less inhibited delegates. The conference dinner took place in the more traditional setting of the Academy Building of the University of Utrecht, complete with baroque furnishings and classical portraits. There was also a post-congress tour to the Dutch Open Air Museum at Arnhem. Sadly, by then, the hot weather had broken, leaving delegates to run for cover during heavy downpours. 

One of the regular features of this congress in recent years has been the screening of veterinary movies from Spain. On this occasion, the presenters did not disappoint. They offered newly discovered excerpts from films found in the archives of the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, c1906-1960. These addressed topics such as poultry production, modern cheese-making practices, sheep farming, and the control of bovine tuberculosis. In showing the roles that vets played in these operations, the films aimed – amongst other things – to educate the public about the nature and scope of veterinary expertise. 

The conference closed with an invitation to participate in the 2014 congress of the World Association for the History of Veterinary Medicine. This will be hosted by the British Veterinary History Society, which celebrates its 50th birthday later this year.

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