Animals, Health and War: Conference Notes

Reflections,Review November 4, 2014 9:31 am

Lately I attended the 41st Congress of the World Association for the History of Veterinary Medicine. The conference’s themes of “One Health” and “Animals in War,” draw to London speakers from 28 countries. The variety helped to spice up the standard Eurocentric bias these conferences often suffer from. And so, after a presentation on vaccines in Britain, one Turkish veterinarian said he would like to highlight the role of Ottoman practices of inoculation imported to England by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. The peculiar combination between trained historians who are fascinated by veterinary and veterinarians who are captivated by history diversified the research attitudes, allowing participants to play with invisible ties between past and present. For instance, my presentation was on late 19th century British inspectors into vivisection laboratories. I presented some rare documentation of the inspectors’ work — not much is known about it, in the past nor in the present. In the audience was sitting  a man who was an inspector not long ago. It could have happen in no other place.


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Walking down the stairs from the presentation halls, heading to the refreshments’ tables (well of course), I bumped into the crowded corner of poster presentations. Until that moment, I believed that posters’ natural habitat is in disciplines other than history. I was wrong: the posters did a great job in presenting records of veterinary history in an accessible and engaging way. This shouldn’t have surprised me. Grad-students realize the importance of visuals in research presentations, as we painstakingly hone our power-point skills. The following is one example on a topic close to my heart, produced by Denis R. Lane, a Fellow of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. It shows “Veterinary surgeons as witnesses in legal disputes.” The poster tells us about a specific period in the history of veterinary, but it also tells us about the relations between law and science, and demonstrate the methodological potential of court records for historians of medicine. Figures 2 and 3 allows to transform quantitative data on veterinary expect witnessing in trials into qualitative information about the social role of veterinary knowledge. Knowing nothing on the subject, you can immediately see that veterinary knowledge was mostly called to testify on horse warranty, which means property disputes; second on notifiable disease, which speaks for the role of veterinarian in public health and managements of diseases; and third on cruelty to animals, which shows us that animal suffering had to be supported by scientific knowledge.



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“One Health” is a term with more than one definition, but they all question the common division between human and animal medicine. This was a provocative choice of topic for a conference on the history of veterinary, and encouraged participants to reexamine the boundaries of the discipline. But it did more than that. Through focusing on the entanglements of bodies of humans and other animals, the choice illustrated how their shared political lives evolved. Animals in War, although planned as a separate topic, turned out to be very much related. As Hilda Kean had shown in her keynote speech, war can be a moment in which the interests of animals and humans divide. But at the same time their shared space and shared bodily presence bounds their fate together: animals figure historically as war machines, as victims and as companions.


Conference Organizers:

World Association for the History of Veterinary website:


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