The founder of the world’s first veterinary school was a Frenchman called Claude Bourgelat. He was born on March 27th, 1712 into a noble Lyonnaise family and received the classical education of his time with the intention of becoming a lawyer. He was, however, a fantastically good horseman and at the age of 28 he became the grand equerry of France and the director of the Lyon Academy of Horsemanship. The academy, at that time, was a school where young noblemen learned the equestrian arts and swordsmanship, together with math, music and manners. During this time Bourgelat’s studies of veterinary classics made him realise the deficiencies in his knowledge and under the direction of 2 surgeons of Lyon he studied the anatomy, physiology and pathology of animals.
Four years later, in 1744, he published his first work “Nouveau Newcastle ou Nouveau traité de cavalerie” (a new treatise on horsemanship). The Duke of Newcastle was one of the foremost English horsemen of the period. Bourgelat’s treatise quickly brought him considerable recognition and helped him to be considered one of the best riders in Europe at that time.
But Bourgelat wasn’t content with his reputation as an expert horseman. Highly cultivated and an elegant writer, Bourgelat maintained correspondence with the great minds of his time, including Voltaire, the great French writer and philosopher who influenced important thinkers of the French and American revolutions; Jean Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert, a French mathematician who was co-editor with Denis Diderot of the Encyclopédie; and Frederic the Great, the third king of Prussia and one of the most distinguished monarchs of the 18th century.
A product of his age, Bourgelat was considered a rationalist. He wanted to base medicine on known observation and experimentation. This desire was evidenced in 1750 when Bourgelat published “Elémens d’hippiatrique ou nouveaux principes sur la connoissance et sur la medicine des” (elements of the principles of veterinary art, or, new knowledge about medicine and horses). This book led to his election as a member of the Academy of Sciences. This learned society, founded in 1666 by King Louis XIV, was at the forefront of scientific developments in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.
More important, his book demonstrated that Bourgelat had already conceived of the idea of veterinary teaching standards. In the preface of “Elements”, he wrote: “Those who intend to acquire skills in veterinary art will not be able to acquire sufficient degree of education… (since) we do not have schools for teaching.” It would take another decade, however, before the first veterinary school became a reality.
A key player in the school’s inception was Henri Léonard Jean Baptiste Bertin, an administrator in the Lyon region from 1754 - 1757. He and Bourgelat became close friends at this time and Bertin continued to support his friend after he left Lyon and moved to Paris.
In Paris, Bertin was made lieutenant general of police, and later, controller general of finance. Bourgelat was alternately made responsible for the royal horse–breeding establishments in the Lyon area and then inspector at the Lyon Library in 1760. By 1761, when Bourgelat was 49, he already had 25 years experience of managing the King’s Academy.
Fortunately for Bourgelat, in 1761, the government of King Louis XV wished to prevent cattle disease, protect grazing land, and train farmers. Bertin became the agent of this agricultural reform initiated by the king. It was at this time that Bertin proposed that a veterinary school should be founded in Lyon with Bourgelat as its first director.
Although willing to make a personal investment of time and energy, Bourgelat was not about to commit any money to the endeavour and so, on August 4th 1761, he obtained a grant from the king that was signed by Bertin “to defray the expenses of the establishment and maintenance of a school for diseases of cattle, to be placed in the city of Lyon.” The grant was an allocation of 50,000 livres (8oz of gold was worth 750 livres) payable after six years. Six months later, in February 1762, the first students were enrolled.
Research has revealed that the only requirement for admission to the new school was the ability to read and write. There was no age limit. In fact, in 1762, an 11 year old child was in the same class as a man older than 30. Students were obliged to present evidence of baptism and a certificate of good conduct.
Bourgelat even dismissed those who already had previous scientific training as doctors because he feared that they would quickly give up veterinary medicine to devote themselves solely to human medicine and surgery, which was much more lucrative (and still is to this day – so no changes there!) In all, 38 students enrolled at the school in the new veterinary school by the end of 1762.
To be continued in the next issue.(acknowledgement to JAVMA News, Jan 1st 2011)