Monday 23 March 2015

A small pair of hands

I was in my mid-thirties before I really appreciated that there was a whole other class of scientists who were what I have called a Good Pair of Hands.  I was working back to back, and a long way outside my comfort zone, with a woman who really understood what she was doing, rather than following the protocol like me.  Such people are not as rare as hen's teeth, but we recognise Barbara "A Feeling for the Organism" McClintock as being extraordinary because she was rare enough.  You need a particular cast to your mind to imagine yourself coursing about at molecular size and appreciate what's actually happening in the test-tube.

You could say that one of the prized attributes of a veterinary surgeon, as with midwives, is a small pair of hands.  Often enough a vet will have to shove an emerging head back up the uterus and then untangle a mess of legs and a couple of heads before guiding them out in an orderly fashion rather than an unseemly scrum for the exit.  In a different world, veterinary science could, like midwifery, have become an exclusive domain for women.  There was, for example, a brief window of time when women were pre-eminent in the world of software and computer programming until the men realised that software was a lot more sexy than wiring, transistors and diodes.

When Aleen Cust was born in Cordangan, Co Tipperary in 1868 being a vet was the exclusive domain of men, but that was all the girl wanted to do and after the death of her father, she was staked by her guardian to attend Vet School in Edinburgh.  She aced all the courses, won the gold medal for Zoology, but was refused entry into the qualifying exams for membership of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS).  She returned to Ireland as the assistant of a charismatic chap called William Augustine Byrne who was an MRCVS.  On dit que they were lovers in Edinburgh, and had two children (!) but in Co Roscommon, they were recognised rather as being a good pair of vets: she at least as competent as he.  When he died in 1910, she took over as sole proprietor of the practice.  She couldn't call herself Vet, but the farmers and gentry clearly valued her expertise and preferred to call her than the 'qualified' male vets in the district.  Galway County Council, for example, were keen to appoint her as a Veterinary Inspector; the RCVS objected so she was appointed [Veterinary] Inspector and carried on working.  She jacked it all in when WWI broke out and arrived in Abbeville to work with the thousands of horses that were milling about behind the trenches waiting for the Big Push and a gallop to Berlin.

In 1919 the British Government passed the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 and that tipped the balance in the RCVS, which had been split on the possibility of women being capable of knowing the difference between Strangles and Glanders, or recognising a case of acorn poisoning.  The Royal Society took another 25 years to accept women as equals, but in 1922, Aleen Cust applied for the diploma that she had qualified for in 1897, was put through a brief oral examination, and was presented with her MRCVS by the President of the College in December of that year. She was the first woman to achieve this distinction. 

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