The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies

William Dick - a pioneer of veterinary education

A brief history of the life of William Dick and how he established the Veterinary School.

Early life

A blonde woman looks at a red test tube in front of a stained glass portrait of William Dick; the year 1866 is written below the portrait

William Dick was born in the Canongate on the 6th May 1793. He was the second child of Jean and John Dick, a young farrier who had moved south from Aberdeen to Edinburgh and taken up lodgings at the foot of the Canongate, in Whitehorse Close.

He was educated by the Rev J. Robinson at Paul’s Work, and at Mr Kesson’s school in Shakespeare Square. By 1815 the family had moved to the New Town of Edinburgh, to 15 Clyde Street.

William was trained as a farrier at his father’s forge in the stable courtyard behind numbers 8 and 10 Clyde Street, conveniently situated diagonally across the road from his home.

Education

[his] short sojourn in London had little if any effect on him professionally … what he did gain … was an insight into the working of an established veterinary college

Charnock BradleyPrincipal of the School, 1911

In 1816 he attended lectures at Dr John Barclay’s extramural school of anatomy and was quickly spotted by the comparative anatomist as the brightest among his many students. William was befriended by Barclay, who became an important mentor over the next ten years.

In the autumn of 1817, at the age of 24, Dick travelled to London to attend the lectures of Professor Edward Coleman at the Veterinary College in Camden, London. After a three month period of study he had the confidence to apply for his examination, which he passed. He received his diploma on 27 January 1818.

Starting the Vet School

Back in Edinburgh, he set about establishing his own veterinary school. His initial offer of veterinary lectures in 1818 attracted no students, but in 1819 four students attended, in 1820 nine students came for a month-long series of free lectures, and in each of the next two years a large class attended his lectures in the School of Arts.

In 1823 the Directors of the Highland Society of Scotland at Edinburgh approved a sum not exceeding £50 to promote “public instruction in the ensuing season, in the veterinary art and the diseases of livestock”.

He rented the side room of the Calton Convening rooms in Edinburgh, and delivered the first lecture in the evening of Monday, 24th November 1823. Twenty five ‘practical or professional’ students attended (farriers and smiths, new students paying 2 guineas, former students being charged 1 guinea), as well as various interested ‘general or amateur’ students, medical men and members of the Highland Society’s committee.

A series of forty six lectures were given on Monday and Thursday evenings, spread over the following 23 weeks concluding in April 1824. The material covered the anatomy and diseases of horses, cattle, sheep, pigs and dogs, a range far wider than that covered by the London School, and one which better fitted the requirements of the Scottish economy. He gave practical instruction at his father’s forge in Clyde Street.

a practical man … ready to undertake the duty of delivering suitable lectures, and to provide the necessary accommodation, on receiving the countenance and patronage of the Society.

Directors of the Highland Society of Scotland

Progression of the School

A grey horse in the background looks left; a horse statue in the foreground looks right

Dick’s veterinary school made more or less steady progress, with its finances, and the manners and morals of the students watched over by his redoubtable elder sister Mary. His students were expected to attend classes given by medical lecturers in the University and the Royal College of Surgeons.

A system of oral examinations was established and by 1828 there was a final public examination. Successful students received a certificate from the Highland Society stating that they were "qualified to practise the veterinary art".

William himself was an outstanding practitioner. In 1842 he was appointed Veterinary Surgeon in Scotland to Queen Victoria, with his professional opinion being sought in many lawsuits throughout the UK.

By 1844 nearly 800 men had attended the Edinburgh Veterinary College as students, of whom about half had obtained diplomas. More than double that number had been educated by 1863, and 740 had received Highland Society diplomas.

By the time of his death in 1866, the 818 students he had taught were to be found throughout the world. Among them were the founders of veterinary schools in Glasgow, Liverpool, Ireland, Canada, the USA and Australia.

Later life

William Dick died on 4 April 1866, and was buried in the family plot in New Calton Cemetery, about one hundred metres from his birthplace.

In addition to establishing the first veterinary college in Scotland, lecturing, and running an extensive practice, Dick was editor of The Veterinarian for 12 years and wrote many papers on clinical subjects.

He was also public-spirited. For 15 years he was honorary treasurer of the Royal Physical Society. He was also Justice of the Peace, Moderator of the High Constables, Dean of Guild, Deacon of the Hammermen Guild, and Deacon Convenor of the Trades, which entitled him to sit on the Town Council.

In his will he left his estate in trust, the interest to be used to maintain his college. The Lord Provost, Magistrates and Council of the City of Edinburgh were appointed Trustees.

Legacy

In 1906, the College was named the Royal (Dick) Veterinary College by Act of Parliament. It became a constituent part of the University of Edinburgh in 1951 and a full faculty in 1964.

The School is now part of the University's College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine and continues in be world leader in veterinary education providing a high quality and innovative learning experience for our students within a "family" setting as did William Dick 175 years ago.