Veterinary Surgeons

All Creatures Great and Plagued: a Scottish Veterinary Surgeon in America


© Manitoba Archives.

British Boundary Commission Officers; among them are astronomers, geographers and a Scottish veterinary surgeon, named W.G. Boswell (sitting front row, far right, whip in hand). 

The American Frontier has been a draw for children and adults around the globe ever since European empires began to steal their way into North America. With its mesmeric mix of romance, lawlessness, exploration, industry and brutal wars (pitched between Europeans, Native Americans Mexicans and the newly established American nationals), it became a myth in its own time and a draw for adventurers of every ilk and nationality. This includes a fascinating Dundee veterinary surgeon, James Wighton Booth (1850-92), who also worked in North America and Canada in the 1870s. This was a time when the veterinary profession was establishing itself globally and his family’s history may be closely linked to their professional experiences of that time.

The Dundee Trade Directory of 1850 lists his father, George Booth (1818-68), as veterinary surgeon at Meadowside Road, Dundee. At this time, veterinary surgeons were derogatorily called ‘Horse doctors’ and polite society considered them largely with the illiterate and labouring classes. Nevertheless, it was a fledgling profession in George’s lifetime. A Royal Charter in 1844 recognised veterinary surgeons as a profession and gave colleges the power to administer examinations. Almost three decades after the Medical Act, there also came the Veterinary Surgeons Act of 1881, which legally ratified the qualified practitioner. Although George may have been untrained – as were many practising veterinary surgeons – he may also have been one of the pioneering veterinary surgeons who qualified at Scotland’s first veterinary college. William Dick was the son of an Aberdeenshire farrier, but he established the Clyde Street Veterinary College in Edinburgh in 1839. A contemporary description of William Dick’s lectures noted that above his head was ‘suspended a portion of inflated and injected intestine, with its mesenteric expansion dangling in the air, something like a lure for flies; whilst all around the room, and especially in the corners, are heaped together vast quantities of diseased bones, and other preparations, seemingly without order, and without arrangement.’ From inauspicious beginnings the College gained global renown, later becoming The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies at the University of Edinburgh.

Similarly to William Dick, George Booth was born in Aberdeenshire, the son of Alexander, a blacksmith, before moving to Dundee in the 1830s. George married Margaret Buist and together they had 3 children: Margaret, Christina and James. Whilst Margaret has proved elusive to trace, Christina had two illegitimate children with David Inglis Rea, a forest labourer from Glamis, Forfarshire. Of those, George Rea Booth (1865-1909) rose to Master Mariner, but, speculatively, perhaps his scandalous birth may have hastened his grandfather’s death – George (snr) died of ‘supposed…cramp of the heart.’ Christina and her two children continued to live with the widowed Margaret. George’s son, James Wighton Booth, meanwhile had trained as a veterinary surgeon, and in 1872 he is listed as veterinary surgeon, 30 Meadow Place, Dundee.

James married Isabella Paton (c1850-1883) in 1870, in accordance with the Free Church in Dundee. They had at least six children, of which two were born in the USA, one in Canada and the rest in Scotland. Emigrating Scots were not unusual for this time, nor were the Booths’ destinations. Nonetheless, James’ occupation as a veterinary surgeon, and the fact that he returned to Scotland to continue practising, do indicate a less than usual story. To the vexing conundrum of image and reality that all historians face, it immediately poses the question of what sort of veterinary surgeon was James Wighton Booth?

Even as the Wild West was waning, American ‘heroes and villains’ were using media and international touring to bring the symbolism of their young nation to the rest of the world. For example, there is a striking image (held in Birmingham City Archives) of William F. Cody – a.k.a. Buffalo Bill – parading his Wild West show through the streets of Birmingham in 1900. A postmodern eye just cannot help to be entranced by the convoluting layers of constructed reality, nationalism, imagery and ‘history’ working in tandem. Hollywood renditions of the Wild West have placed the clash between image and reality in our international subconscious, but this seems a universe away from Dundee and its Jute manufacturing citadel. It is tempting to imagine an Elliot-esque ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ ‘Vet’ relocating from a Scottish idyll to the wilds of North America. But perhaps his travels were likely to have been a little more down to earth, if no less exciting.

In the 1860s and 1870s, North America and Canada were suffering from what was commonly called ‘bovine plague’. The nation’s livestock was valued at multi-millions of US dollars (billions in today’s terms) and the annual loss hampered economic growth. At this time, the huge cattle drives, made famous in countless mid-twentieth century Hollywood blockbusters, were re-directed and blocked by local ranchers and farmers. The context explains the antipathy towards cattle drivers who left devastated cattle in their wake – and huge economic losses. Kansas, Missouri, Indiana and Illinois all suffered huge losses, leading to some states prohibiting the driving of cattle through their lands. The birthplaces of three of James’ children place him tantalising close to the epicentre of America’s ‘bovine plague’: Canada (1872); 1874 Michigan (1874); 1875 Ohio (1875).

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Source: Buffalo Bill Wild West Annual (London: Purnell & Sons, Ltd., 1959) © T.V. Boardman & Co., Ltd.

The US Department of Agriculture was founded in 1862 to analyse the impact of the diseases in North America. J.R. Dodge, a statistician, revealed that contagious pleuro-pneumonia was spreading westward and that cattle fever (a plight in Britain too) was causing loss of cattle across the nation. ‘Blackleg, abortion, glanders, distemper, anthrax and buffalo gnats’ were also causing severe loss of animals. Horses were also affected by a wide variety of diseases, and swine were so infected that Dodge considered them ‘unfit for consumption’. In turn, veterinary surgeons were commissioned and despatched from the UK to carry out research in the Americas, of which many had originated from (and qualified in) Scotland. For example, the Ontario Board of Agriculture visited Professor William Dick in Edinburgh because they were concerned about the plagues decimating European cattle. Dick suggested one of his graduates, Andrew Smith (1834-1910), who went out to Canada to advise and teach veterinary surgery, establishing the Ontario Veterinary College in 1862. Other Scottish ‘Vets’ founded institutes, such as Cornell University’s veterinary faculty, the veterinary department at Harvard University, Chicago Veterinary School and Montreal Veterinary College. This research is a work in progress, and, presently, we do not know what role James Booth played in this broader context, but it is tempting to imagine that he was in some capacity involved in this transnational veterinary history.


B.W. Bierer, A Short History of Veterinary Medicine in America (Michigan State University Press, 1955)

J.M. Isa and C.A.V. Barker, ‘Walter George Boswell: Veterinary Surgeon for the British North American Boundary Commission of 1872-76’, The Canadian Veterinary Journal 31 (1990): pp. 715-22.

S.D. Jones, Valuing Animals: Veterinarians and their Patients in Modern America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002)

RCVS Knowledge, an independent charity associated with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS).

University of Edinburgh, The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies:

Birmingham City archives

Dr. Kim Price