The history of the Ontario Veterinary College

Karen Dallimore
September 08, 2017
By Karen Dallimore
As livestock became more important to the rural economy in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) evolved to service the needs of both animals and people.

"The changes that happened at OVC, particularly between the two world wars, laid the groundwork for what we are able to do now," Dr. Elizabeth Stone told an interested group of history buffs at a Rural History Roundtable lecture recently. As the 10th Dean of the OVC, Stone delved into the history of the institution to put its evolution in perspective as the college celebrates its 150th anniversary.

An 1830 census shows that there were 177,722 farm animals in Ontario: 80,000 dairy cattle, 32,000 other cattle, 33,000 work oxen, 30,500 horses and an assortment of other livestock. While this may not seem large, consider that there were only 213,000 people in Ontario (then Upper Canada) by comparison. By 1851, there were five million animals, and by 1870 livestock products were providing 60 per cent of the agricultural output of Ontario, surpassing wheat.

One-third of the animal products were dairy related, such as cheese, and by the 1880s there were three dairy associations in Ontario.

"Cattle and dairy were central to the agricultural economy," said Stone.
The Human Factor

Human populations were growing too. In 1865 there were 660,000 urban residents and 1.3 million living in rural areas. By 1909, that trend turned, with immigration largely responsible for an increase in urban dwellers to 1.24 million, while the rural population dropped to 1.05 million. This meant that farmers needed to not only provide for people in urban areas, but for an export market as well.

Livestock were considered the key to prosperity at that time and there was a need for veterinarians to care for them. Thus, a delegation was sent to Edinburgh to recruit 23-year-old Prof. Andrew Smith. He founded Upper Canada College on Temperance Street in Toronto, erected the buildings with his own funds and taught anatomy and disease courses. Prof. George Buckland joined him to teach management and husbandry.

The school was successful even though it was accused of having low admission standards and being "not too rigorous." In 1895, a candidate for acceptance needed only to present evidence of a "good common school education." If no certificate was available, an entrance exam was required for reading, writing and spelling – but if a candidate did not pass he could still start the two-year program.

In 1908, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture took over the veterinary program, lengthening it from two to three years after high school, and to four by 1918. This was spearheaded by E.A. Grange, who was second principal of the OVC from 1908 to 1918.
Moving to Guelph
By 1918, with C.D. McGilvray as the third OVC principal, interest grew in moving the college "a day's horse ride away" from Toronto to Guelph, but a new building had just been completed on University Avenue in Toronto. At that time, horses were replacing oxen as beasts of burden, light horses were being replaced by motor vehicles for transportation and cattle numbers were increasing exponentially.

The move was met with "weeping and gnashing of teeth," said Stone. In fact, several faculty members refused to move and the University of Toronto resources were left behind. However, by the time of the grand opening in 1922, McGilvray pronounced: "a catastrophe [had] not occurred."

Students were told that the close proximity to the Ontario Agricultural College would fulfil the mandate of the veterinary profession to serve not only the health and management of livestock animals, but also public health and food safety.

Once in Guelph, courses became hands-on. At farms where Stone Road Mall now stands, students worked with cattle, sheep, swine and horses. Milk hygiene courses also expanded, as well as courses in poultry disease and husbandry.

By the 1930s, courses concerning the diseases of fur-bearing animals such as mink and foxes were quickly attracting students. While dogs and cats were always part of the curriculum, they were done almost on the side, said Stone. It wasn't until the 1950s that a small animal clinic was added to the OVC building.

"Which animals are valued continues to change the veterinary profession," said Stone.

Overall, OVC research and extension work provided both a practical and a valuable service to the province in the 1930s, especially in regards to disease research. And by the end of the depression, while Brucellosis testing was still being developed, results were showing that a vaccination program was working.

In 1931, a prevalence of nutritional issues was appearing in the journals, such as compensating for phosphorus deficiencies that were associated with a lack of variety of winter-feed. This was research that farmers could directly implement, said Stone, and that became the driving force behind faculty research. Since then, the OVC has been leading the way in animal research and veterinary medicine.
A New Book
As well, a new book has been released, entitled Milestones: 150 Years of the Ontario Veterinary College includes photos and details from the opening of the first veterinary college in Canada and the United States to today’s OVC. The book will be available for purchase during Alumni Weekend, and later on Amazon.com.

Co-authors Lisa Cox, a PhD history candidate, and OVC associate dean Peter Conlon dug through the University archives and interviewed former faculty and donors to find the 150 most interesting stories.

“I think the biggest challenge when creating a book like this is to determine the balance between historical and modern,” said Cox. “We’re talking about a school that was so critical to the professionalization of veterinary medicine, so there are many historical achievements. But we also have some great modern successes, so a significant issue is finding ways to integrate both into the book.”

The new book contains many more photos than a historical volume published for the college's centennial. Some of Cox’s favourite pictures depict the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps serving Canadian and British troops during the First World War. A total of 309 OVC students, faculty and graduates served in the war, with some dying in battle.

“The stories were chosen to try to demonstrate unique aspects of OVC’s history and how that history is interwoven with the history of Ontario and Canada over 150 years,” he said. “I’m proud that we were able to recognize so many people’s contribution to the success of the college and all of veterinary medicine. Some of these people are well-known, but many are not; however, each one has contributed in various ways to create our history. Without every one of them, who knows what OVC would look like today?”

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