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A World War I vet with the New Zealand Veterinary Corps treats a horse's teeth while an assistant steadies the animal. Photograph taken at Louvencourt, France, 22 May 1918 by Henry Armytage Sanders. Image courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918, reference 1/2-013208-G.

A World War I vet with the New Zealand Veterinary Corps treats a horse’s teeth while an assistant steadies the animal. Photograph taken at Louvencourt, France, 22 May 1918 by Henry Armytage Sanders. Image courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918, reference 1/2-013208-G.

One of the little known casualties of World War I is the University of Otago’s proposed veterinary school. By the late 1800s animal health was critical to New Zealand’s economy. The country was dependent on animals for much of its export income, which centred on wool, frozen meat and dairy products; just as importantly, horses still powered much transport and machinery. Yet, at the turn of the century the country was still importing its qualified vets. In 1903 the Canterbury Agricultural College (later to become Lincoln University) appointed W.J. Colebatch as its first veterinary science lecturer, but his role was to instruct students of farming rather than prospective vets.

Around this time the government was looking keenly at the “special schools” of the various university colleges, and was under some pressure from the North Island colleges to divide these more fairly around the country. Otago and Canterbury, as the first universities to get off the ground, had naturally evolved their special schools first: Otago in medicine and mines and Canterbury in engineering and agriculture. Otago now came under pressure from the government to close its School of Mines in favour of Auckland and to instead develop further specialities which would coordinate well with its medical school. It won the battle to retain the mining school (a battle which would be repeated and lost later in the century) but the idea of other special schools at Otago gathered momentum.

The 1904 Dentists’ Act raised the required standard of education for dentists and placed it in the hands of the University of New Zealand. Plans to open a national dental school at Otago quickly took shape and the first students commenced in 1907. This was made easier because some of the subjects necessary for dental students – anatomy, physiology, physics, chemistry – were already on offer at Otago thanks to its medical school. The same would also be true for veterinary students, provided lecturers were able to teach animal as well as human biology. In 1904, the same year that negotiations for the dental school got underway, the university council began negotiating with the government for a proposed course in veterinary science, receiving encouragement from Premier Richard Seddon. It set up a committee which worked with veterinary experts to plan the facilities required to offer a four-year degree in veterinary science. This would include the appointment of a couple of specialist professors, a surgeon and assistants and the building of a veterinary hospital; the old tin shed building of the School of Mines – then under prospect of closure – could be altered to become the new veterinary school.

In early 1907 the University of Otago Council reported “there is every prospect of the school being opened and carried on with success, provided the Government determine to select their Veterinary Surgeons and Inspectors from those who may pass through the school.” But when it offered a veterinary course that year, no students applied. The council remained anxious to start the school, consulted with government veterinary experts again and decided to commence with a shorter nineteen-month Certificate in Animal Hygiene “for the training of Inspectors of the Agricultural Department.” It hoped this less demanding course would be more attractive. Unlike the full veterinary course, which could start with an intermediate year with resources already available, the animal hygiene course would require specialist teaching from the beginning; government funding was needed.

In 1909 the government voted the University of Otago £3,000 to build a veterinary school (around half a million dollars in today’s values) together with £1,500 per year for running costs; “before long, no doubt, the Veterinary School will be in operation,” the Minister of Education reported. The university council was not so confident. With no money to spare from its own funds, it was fully dependent on this government grant. Now the School of Mines had been saved, a new building was needed for the vet school and the grant did not seem big enough. The council continued negotiating with the government for additional money, but meanwhile it was having difficulty finding a suitable site. Ideally the vet school should be fairly close to the main university buildings, but there could be problems housing animals in a heavily populated part of town. Experts advised “a site of sufficient size to allow of stock being kept under the same conditions as they would be on an ordinary farm, and, with this end in view, the Council is desirous of acquiring a property near the outskirts of the town of an area amounting to about 25 acres.”

In 1911 the university’s annual report expressed its hopes of opening the veterinary school early in 1912, but the following year’s report regretted that it was not yet underway: “Very great difficulty has been experienced in acquiring at a reasonable price a suitable block of land which would not be inconveniently remote from the city. Until further financial assistance can be obtained from the Government, therefore, the matter of establishing a veterinary school must still remain under consideration.” The council did not give up hope and continued its hunt for a site; in 1914 it believed it had finally found somewhere suitable on the Taieri and submitted it for government approval, since additional funding would be needed.

World events now intervened: both nation and university had new priorities as resources – both human and financial – were diverted to the cause of the Great War. All thoughts of a veterinary school at Otago were put aside. This was rather ironic because, as the photograph above suggests, horses and their carers played an important role in New Zealand’s war effort. In the jubilee history of the University of Otago, published in 1919, George Thompson wrote: “The presence of the Medical School in Dunedin has necessarily gathered there a group of other schools whose curriculum is closely connected with that of Medicine, viz., Dentistry and Home Science; and probably in the near future a School of Veterinary Science may also be added.” But alas, this was not to be. Had the government been a little more generous in their funding in the early 1910s, Otago might now have a century-old veterinary school. Instead, New Zealand experienced decades of insufficient veterinary services, and New Zealanders who wanted to train in veterinary science had to travel to Australia or further afield until as recently as 1962, when this country’s first veterinary course was established at Massey University.

Sadly there are no Otago veterinary graduates to read this post, but sometimes what didn’t happen in history can be almost as interesting as what did!