Shetland son's lifetime achievement
Edinburgh alumnus and passionate supporter of the Dick Vet Dr George Gunn has been recognised with the Animal Pharm Lifetime Achievement Award. He spoke to us about his background and distinguished career in veterinary medicine.
From the wilds of Shetland to the suburbs of Michigan, Dr George Gunn’s veterinary career has taken him all over the world.
A graduate of the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies (known as the Dick Vet), George first came to Edinburgh from Shetland in 1968, having never set foot on the mainland before.
“I didn’t leave the islands until the day I went to university,” he says. “I took the boat from Lerwick to Aberdeen – a 14 hour overnight journey – and then a train to Edinburgh. That was the first train I had ever seen – and on that same day, at 18 years old, I saw my first set of traffic lights and my first double decker bus.”
George was never in doubt about his chosen career path. He had wanted to be a vet since he was six, and his early years were greatly influenced by his father, a shepherd who worked on a farm in Weisdale.
"It was such a rich childhood," he says. "My parents taught me so much about their way of life. I was highly proficient at hand-shearing sheep and doing all of the animal tasks by the time I was in my early teens.”
However, living away from the islands for the first time, George found university life in Edinburgh difficult to adjust to at first.
“The whole thing was an immense challenge,” he remembers. “I was living away from my parents for the first time and attending lectures rather than the more formal teaching in school. I had grown up speaking in the Shetland dialect – where many of the words are very different to those used outside Shetland – so even simple things like being understood presented problems.”
“We had some very good teachers,” he adds. “Alan Rowland, who taught pathology, was probably the best. The classes were all memorable – but I think the practical classes were what sticks in my mind. We also had field trips to farms during second year – they were very enjoyable. We saw how it all worked, and the differences and similarities to what I had seen in Shetland all fascinated me.”
An early setback – and a new beginning
Following graduation in 1973, George accepted a job as a veterinary surgeon in Stonehaven. However, he was only a few short weeks in the role when he contracted brucellosis – a bacterial infection often originating in cattle – and had no choice but to take a step back. Three years later, he was still struggling with the condition. Under medical advice, he left veterinary practice and joined the Ministry of Agriculture, based in Staffordshire.
In the years that followed, George found himself increasingly involved with the pharmaceutical industry. He initially worked for the Wellcome Foundation, then moved to Coopers Animal Health and then on to Janssen, the pharmaceutical arm of Johnson & Johnson.
In the late 1990s, he was head-hunted to lead Pharmacia’s global animal health business based in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Following that, he joined Novartis in North Carolina, leading their North American business, and subsequently moved to Switzerland to become head of their global Animal Health business.
In 2008, George received an honorary doctorate in veterinary medicine and surgery from the University of Edinburgh. It was the first time he had been in touch with the University in many years, and the award stirred powerful memories for him about his childhood years in Shetland.
“My mother didn’t make it to my graduation in 1973 – she was due to fly down from Shetland but the plane was fog bound for several days so she didn’t travel,” he says. “My father had passed away a couple of years before I got the doctorate, but my mother was still alive. She didn’t travel to Edinburgh for my second graduation but she was able to watch it through the wonders of the internet – a very proud moment for her. It also inspired me to support the Dick Vet and have a tutorial room at the Easter Bush campus named after my father – The Andy Gunn Room. It was amazing for me to have such a memorial for someone who had made so much impact on my life.”
In recent years, George has remained in close contact with the University, helping to support student bursaries and organising class reunions.
“I have come to realise that one of the things that we have no control over is where and when we are born,” he says. “It has something that has so much impact on our lives. I was able to have an education because the state provided a good education that was free to everyone. Times are different now – and all I want to do is to help a few individuals achieve their dream of a veterinary degree. I'm able to do this, so why not?”
He adds: “I went to the Dick Vet because I planned to do a course that would, in the end, bring me back to where I was born and brought up – my ambition was to be a vet on the Islands. Fate took a hand and my career took a different path but it was the education at the Dick Vet that was the enabler all the way.
“I've seen the world, had a fabulous career, learned every day – and I am still learning. And without my degree none of that would have happened. I will be forever grateful for those years at the Dick Vet.”
Animal Pharm is the leading online business intelligence service for the animal health sector, and has been providing animal health professionals worldwide with news, analysis and insight for more than 30 years. Animal Pharm awarded George with the Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his many roles that have had a significant impact on animal health.