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A century of animal hospital; Often overlooked, Liverpool's academic success is no better demonstrated than in the University's Faculty of Veterinary Science, celebrating its centenary and rated as one of the best in the world. Peter Elson reports.

Byline: Peter Elson

UNTIL 100 years ago, veterinary schools were regarded on a par with those catering for the hobbies of the offspring of affluent parents.

Then Liverpool University made the unheard of decision (to some outcry) of incorporating a veterinary school. It not only upset the academics, but also the veterinary establishment.

``It was a very progressive move to take a veterinary school into a university. Up until then they were run in the same way as piano or dancing schools, '' says Prof Sandy Trees, Dean of Liverpool's Faculty of Veterinary Science.

That's why William Owen Williams's New Veterinary School was imported from Edinburgh to Liverpool University, founded only a year before.

This was a practical move as Liverpool was surrounded by an animal-filled farm hinterland. The city also had hundreds of dray horses working throughout the docks and had the largest cattle trade in Europe. Liverpool ship owners had a vested interest in the health and well-being of these animals and were keen to bankroll and benefit from the vet school's skills.

``Liverpool Veterinary Science School still remains close to the livestock centres, such as the Cheshire dairy herds. But from the start we built up a very good equine department which has become the best in Britain, if not the world, '' says Prof Trees.

Another first in Liverpool was the development of a rural site, because it was difficult to get large animals into the city. This was established at Leahurst, Wirral, in 1942, on land leased and then purchased from the Bibby family -- thereby creating another ship-owner link.

Prof Trees says: ``All the vet schools followed us and now have this facility. It was all part of the huge explosion in bio-sciences which happened in the early years of Liverpool University. '' The vet school is still thrusting ahead, most notably with the new pounds 9m Small Animal Hospital at the Leahurst site, for which planning permission will soon be sought.

Prof Trees says: ``For some time we've had the aspiration to improve our small animal facilities, and we've not got much room in the city centre site to expand, although the first referral surgery will be retained in Liverpool.

``So far we've raised pounds 2. 5m, but all donations will be gratefully received. The Leahurst hospital will serve the entire north of England, although with the motor way connection we will increasingly have cases from all over the country.

Students already spend two thirds of their clinical training at Leahurst. Courses for the 600 students are divided into studying horses, livestock and small animals. Relations are very good with the university and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, where Prof Trees has his office (his specialist area is parasitology).

The standard of students is the best in the UK, says Prof Trees.

There are more than 10 applicants for every one place (last year 1, 200 hopefuls applied for the 100 undergraduate places) and three A grades at A-level are an essential requirement.

``As a result, we have very motivated, hard-working and talented students with a very low drop-out rate, '' says Prof Trees.

``Around 80% of our applicants are women, which reflects a global trend. However, we have to ensure that future graduates reflect wider society.

``It's an attractive profession for women. They are, of course, very diligent and good exam performers; the same trend is happening in medicine.

``Many people come into veterinary work because they want to make animals better, but we have a problem attracting and keeping people in academic posts. Although research and lecturing is vital, money is influential and private practice will always be well ahead of academia. Unlike medical academics, we don't get supplementary payments.

``After qualifying in veterinary science, graduates have a choice of doing research for pounds 14, 000 for a Ph D compared to private practice and a starting salary of pounds 20, 000 plus a house and car.

``I also worry about increasing student debt, which is exacerbating the situation. If you come out of vet school with pounds 20, 000 to pounds 30, 000 of debt or more, it's difficult to persuade graduates to join school staff. It's difficult to see a solution. The government should seriously think about fee relief for certain types of necessary professions.

The number of female graduates might help this as there is a flexibility with research that could be combined with looking after a family. But the statistics don't show this -- there's more males in research. ''

As for himself, Prof Trees, who lives in Hoylake, says: ``I've always had a real love of biology and natural history and loved the outdoors. I considered either medicine or veterinary science. ''

Born and brought up in Middlesbrough of a Yorkshire father and a Scottish mother -- ``which leads to prudent management'' -- his father was a chemical engineer and he grew up surrounded by the steel industry. Prior to becoming Dean of the Veterinary Science Faculty in 2001, Prof Trees was a corporate veterinary advisor, based in Rome. ``I looked after the Middle East and was in Beirut, but we relocated for obvious reasons. I've always been interested in overseas veterinary medicine. ''

There is an increasing interest in work with wild animals overseas, which compensates for the decrease in UK livestock needing attention. Fewer vets are concerned with production animals (as opposed to domestic pets), as the economics of commercial livestock become more challenging.

``The shrinkage of the livestock industry is also compensated for by the growth of affluence which leads to more pets and more hobby farms, '' says Prof Trees. ``But while livestock no longer contributes a large proportion to Britain's gross domestic product, it still has a huge influence on our landscape. If nothing more, animals at least cut the grass. The collapse of the Eastern European Communist bloc removed at a stroke the political desire that the UK should be self-sufficient on food. The politicians say that, if we can import cheap milk from Poland, then that's what we do, but if our dairy industry disappears then it has a knock-on effect on our landscape. ``The consumer should also be aware that our agricultural industry has very high standards of production and regulation which aren't replicated in cheap imports. '' Prof Trees, though, is very optimistic about the role of the Veterinary Science Faculty which is only one of four in England. It is the only one between Edinburgh and Glasgow and London and Bristol.

``Liverpool is very lucky in having a university with a constellation of medical and veterinary medical departments, taking in biological sciences and the Tropical School of Medicine. ``There is a huge demand for the study of animal sciences and we are well placed to provide those qualifications. ''

Liverpool vet firsts

p The first veterinary school to be incorporated into a university. p The first to create professional positions in small animal and equine clinical studies and epidemiology.

p The first to develop a rural campus (Leahurst) for large animal studies.

p The first to introduce communications skills training for its students. p The first to introduce its own three-year undergraduate animal science honours degree, the BSc in Bioveterinary Science.

100 years of vetting

``We came, a novelty, an amusement to quite a large number, into the university, '' says Prof John Share Jones, one of the school's founders and first full-time lecturer, appointed to the first chair in veterinary anatomy in a British university, in 1919. ``Students used horses or ponies for dissection, buying a limb or part of a pony out of their own pockets.

Frequently, fights would break out over a limb and these `meat fights' became a common feature.

``Occasionally a window might get broken. '' George Weston, chief technician, Veterinary pathology, 1927-78.

During wartime, several works of art from Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery were evacuated to Leahurst and students remember a Stubbs original hanging on the wall. ``Our food rations went to the kitchen and we were each allocated some of our sugar and butter ration for our own use. We were nevershort, but there was not much variety and the results of castrating pigs and various other bits of surgical debris were not wasted. '' John Wood, MRCVS and Liverpool graduate.

``The scene was of complete chaos, the noise made by a 100, sweating figures, wielding blood-stained scalpels and forceps crouched over equally blood-stained tables made for a horrifying vision. The atmosphere was almost solid enough to touch, more like a charnel-house than a seat of academe. '' Bill McCabe, veterinary anatomy technician, on the dissecting room.

During the 1960s John Lennon's Aunt Mimi favours vet students as lodgers at Mendips, 251 Menlove Avenue, Aigburth (now owned by the National Trust).

The new pounds 1. 4m Large Animal Hospital at Leahurst is opened by the university's VC Lord Leverhulme, in 1991. Links between the vets and Chester Zoo were aptly demonstrated by a seven hour operation (the first of its kind) on site to remove a stone from baby elephant Karha, in 1997.

The Performance Unit is opened at Leahurst, in 1998, incorporating a horse-friendly, multi-speed conveyor enabling vets to examine cases underexercise conditions of up to 30mph. With its proximity to Aintree, Grand National runners have often been treated at Leahurst, including Youllneverwalkalone, which was injured during the 2003 race. Others include the show-jumper Milton and Miller's Mate, race horses Moorcroft Boy and Danoli. A BSc in Conservation Medicine is launched in 2001, for veterinary students working in the increasingly important area of wildlife disease and management. Also during the 2001 foot- and mouth disease outbreak, many students help the authorities to control the epidemic. Liverpool is named the ``best vet school in the UK'' for two years running in The Times Good University Guide.

During this centenary year, the Faculty now has more than 600 students on three undergraduate programmes, with more than 80 academic staff. The Large Animal Hospital deals with nearly 2, 000 cases a year and has an annual turnover of pounds 12m. The Small Animal Hospital on the university campus has a similar turnover and sees more than 3, 700 cases a year. And if that wasn't enough, this year surgeons at the Small Animal Hospital perform Britain's first elbow replacement surgery on Koff, a black Labrador with osteoarthritis.

CAPTION(S):

Leahurst has always offered large animal treatment; Animals are treated in hi-tech surroundings; Professor Sandy Trees; Khara, the first operation on a patient at Chester Zoo; Students study anatomy at the old dissection table
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Nov 15, 2004
Words:1745
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