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Herriott's Legacy
Veterinarian and author James Wight describes how his father's example led him down a similar path


"It has gone from 100 family farms to 15. A lot of veterinary practices now are just not doing any farm work at all. There are areas in the country with just a few animals (that) are having difficulty getting any veterinarians to visit them. That is how bad it has gotten."

The same trend envelops the United States.

"As my dad used to say, the profession rises and falls with the with the farming industry." Not any more.

"I think one of the reasons James Herriott's books are so interesting to the veterinary profession (is that) they are history, of course, these books. He saw huge changes, too. He started practice when they used horses to plow fields. He saw the mechanization and the horse going out. He lived through the rise of British agriculture after WWII, the boom in the 60s and 70s and then the decline. He also saw the small-animal work coming in."

Wight's sister, Rosie, wanted to be a veterinarian, but Alf talked her out of it.

"My father put her off because he thought it was too rough-and-tumble for a woman. Now, in our country 80 percent of graduates from veterinary schools are women. Women are doing just fine. It's rough-and-tumble with dogs and cats. I've had a few rough-and-tumbles with hamsters and gerbils," he says, chuckling.

"It used to be such a macho profession. You stripped to the waist for everything. I worked for a vet once who had to strip off to the waist to vaccinate a puppy. Things have changed. It has made great strides, this profession. It is more advanced and knowledgeable, more sophisticated, more clever and undoubtedly more stressful."

The art of science

There are approaches to veterinary medicine that transcend time.

Alf Wight used to call it the old rules of veterinary medicine.

  • "The art, if anything, is more important than the science."
  • "Always be nice to people who are going to pay you money."
  • "It's not what you do, but the way you do it."

As a vet, he probably wasn't a pioneering surgeon, Wight adds, but he cared about his patients and clients.

" 'Always do your best,' he used to say. 'A farmer here is a hard man to impress. A farmer will forgive you if you make a mess of something if he feels you have done your best. You will not be forgiven if you show disinterest.' "

Described by his son as modest, retiring and somewhat shy, Herriot simply looked the other way from fame, and so did everyone in his town.

"He always used to say, you are never a prophet in your own land." And the town treated his fame the same way.

"He was one of the lads, just one of the guys. He's one of us. It suited him just fine." The drive to write a book was always there. By all accounts, Herriot was a well-read man. "His bed was surrounded with mountains of books everywhere. You couldn't even see his head when he was in bed," Wight says.

His first success, "All Creatures Great and Small," took six years to write, with rejections from publishers along the way.

Yet, it was considered an overnight success, spawning six other books, movies and a television series. Adulation from the United States also came and Herriot found his celebrity status puzzling, Wight says.

For son and biographer, Wight soon found that writing and publishing a book, even with a subject he knew very well, was arduous work. "It was two years of intensive work. Not only about writing the thing, it was about the research."


Source: DVM360 MAGAZINE,
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