Bucolic fantasy world in which male vet gets paid in slices of cake still informs expectations of profession, say vet leaders
The public perception of vets is rooted in romanticised James Herriot fiction rather than the commercial realities of modern day practice, say vet leaders, in this week’s issue of the Vet Record.
The popular and much loved James Herriot novels, which were also televised in the 1970s and 1980s, depict a bucolic fantasy world in which a male vet gets paid in slices of cake--a misguided image that still informs expectations of the profession today, they say.
Herriot, the nom de plume of real life Yorkshire vet Alf Wight, practised in the 1940s and 1950s. He was often portrayed as working long hours, doing favours for clients for free, and with scarcely any mention of how he made ends meet.
Speaking to Vet Record about Herriot’s legacy, Henry Tremaine, a specialist in equine surgery and dentistry, said: “The nostalgic thing is of this romantic life driving around in an old car being appreciated by the clients - but actually the reality is working very long hours in stressful conditions with poor reward, being poorly equipped, and with unappreciative clients.”
He added: “That’s being consigned to history - gradually - but I think the public still cling onto the notion that that’s what a vet’s life is.”
His comments echo those of British Small Animal Veterinary Association president, Sue Patterson, who earlier this year blamed James Herriot for the assumption among some clients that vets’ love of animals would make them prepared to work for nothing.
“I think James Herriot is to blame because we’re all supposed to love animals and work for nothing, but we all run businesses,” she pointed out.
And at the British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) Congress earlier this month, another vet, who graduated in 1992, criticised the Herriot legacy for making it harder for vets to achieve a good work-life balance.
“We’ve been left in that Herriot mentality, and it was a nightmare,” said equine vet and congress speaker, Ben Mayes. He didn’t want the next generation of vets to suffer the same fate, he said.
A series of six case studies in this week’s issue show just how outdated the Herriot depiction of a vet’s life is, although “there is still clearly some way to go before it [the profession] is truly representative of the client population it serves,” acknowledges Vet Record senior reporter, Josh Loeb, who spoke to all the vets featured in the series.
The case studies, which reflect vets who have pursued their careers through non-traditional routes, include Peter Harlech Jones. He was the British Veterinary Association’s (BVA) first openly gay president and the first head of the veterinary unit at the medicines regulator, the European Medicines Agency.
Daniella Dos Santos, the BVA’s new, and youngest ever president, grew up in a working class immigrant family in inner city London and had to fund her own studies.
Enrique Vega uprooted from his native Spain to work in England. He now sits on the Veterinary Products Committee and is a member of the Veterinary Public Health Association’s Council.
“James Herriot continues to inspire vets and future vets, and we know from our own research that he along with other vets in literature is still very popular across the profession,” comments Daniella Dos Santos.
“At the same time, the profession is very different to what was depicted in the age of Herriot and it continues to undergo significant change,” she says. “We need to make sure that there is a diverse range of role models in place that reflect modern demographics and modern ways of working while continuing to inspire future generations of vets.”
Adele waters, Vet Record editor, added: “James Herriot may be a popular cultural figure, but he is 70 years out of date and we should retire him gracefully. With 60 per cent of UK vets being female, Herriot is no longer representative of the modern working vet, and today we should really be talking about Jane Herriot instead.”
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