History of veterinary medicine from Egyptian papyrus to Hippocrates

In antiquity, medicine was based on empirical knowledge and on botany, which were both imbued with mystical power. There was no real difference in how animals and humans were treated. There is, however, evidence that the Egyptians practised specific veterinary science – a papyrus text from 1750 BC describes animal ophthalmology. The walls of tombs were sometimes painted with frescos depicting scenes of calving and the care of cattle hooves. It even seems that animal doctors made up a special caste. Of course, sacred animals were most likely to benefit from the latest advances in knowledge at the time.

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The systematic study of animal pathology did not arrive until Aristotle.


The Greeks were the first to make significant advances in medicine. Hippocrates developed pragmatic medicine around 4000 BC based on systematic questioning and examining of patients. He is also credited with the first medical prescriptions. Next came Plato, Herophilus and Galen, each of whom devoted himself to describing human and sometimes animal diseases. Hippocrates was interested in cerebral disorders in cattle and sheep, but the systematic study of animal pathology did not arrive until Aristotle, who described the best-known diseases of the time, rabies, swine erysipelas and equine colic. He was even interested in elephants. His teachings were used at the famous medical school of Alexandria.

Throughout antiquity, the desire to gain a better understanding of animal medicine was primarily dictated by the importance of the military cavalry, which was vital to military conquest. In addition, frequent epidemics often wiped out entire herds of farm animals. Texts have been found that mention cattle plague in Greece and the Byzantine Empire.

In the Middle Ages science experienced a steady decline and veterinary medicine was no exception. In Europe, instruments and techniques remained practically unchanged. Bloodletting, enemas, cauterisation, trocars, and salt and vinegar were the order of the day.

Some rules were introduced with regard to animal treatment in East Asia (China, Japan), but only the Arabs continued to expand their knowledge by studying Hippocrates and Galen, developing various types of surgical scalpel as well as the setting and splinting of bones in horses.

Horses, the object of all care

© Grossemy

Particular attention was given to warhorses and blacksmiths played a key role. The Crusades, wars and tournaments were all very demanding and mounts were often taken to surgeons or other medical apprentices after battle. Monks practised the art of medicine, although they were forbidden from studying anatomy by the highest church authorities and the ancient medical texts were blacklisted. More than any other era, the Middle Ages were ravaged by epidemics, but superstition and religion prevented intellectuals from studying them. For the Church they symbolised divine punishment. Satanic practices involving animals began to appear.

It was certainly not a good time to be a cat or a bird, or to care for them.

The first medical schools began opening their doors in the 12th century, as the power of reason started to make inroads. Animal pathology, anatomy and physiology were often studied along with the human equivalents. Veterinary medicine was split into pastoral and equestrian medicine. The Italian Giardono Rufo was the first to write about blacksmiths, horse medicine and surgery in 1250 AD.

The Renaissance brought more advances. The study of anatomy was an obsession that occupied the greatest scientific minds, not least that of Leonardo da Vinci. Horses were again the first to benefit from the most advanced studies. Dissection instruments were developed that would be used until the 19th century.

In 1650, Marcello Malpighi invented the modern microscope. The study of cells and tissues contributed to the advancement of medical science. Around this time, a Maltese knight by the name of Ludwig Melzo wrote the first book to list all known horse diseases. It includes illustrations of the syringes, mouthpieces and forceps used at the time. The book served as a reference for several decades.

During the Age of Enlightenment, scientific thought became more influential and the idea of establishing a school for veterinary medicine began to form during the 18th century. One was ultimately established in France.

The first veterinary school

© Hermeline/Diffomédia

By 1761, one of Europe’s best horsemen, Claude Bourgelat, had been the director of the Royal Academy in Lyon for twenty years.

This was a seat of learning where horse riding, weaponry, music and mathematics were all taught, but driven by his interest in anatomy and equine diseases Bourgelat had ideas about founding a veterinary course that would help preserve and improve the condition of horses and protect cattle from ravaging epidemics. He managed to convince the Controller-General of Finances to grant him a subsidy to establish the first school of veterinary medicine in Lyon in February 1762.

Unlike university education at the time, veterinary education prioritised reflection and observation, manual dexterity and visual memory. From the outset, the students conducted checkups and hospitalised animals. Students were soon attracted from abroad and the school became the point of reference in veterinary medicine. In 1764 it became the Royal Veterinary School.

In 1765, Bourgelat opened another institution at Alfort, which still occupies the same site today, making it the oldest continuous veterinary school location. It was originally built within the walls of Paris but taxes on fodder taken into the city soon became prohibitive, leading to relocation to Maisons-Alfort. Similar schools started to spring up across Europe, including Turin (1769), Vienna (1777), Hanover (1778), Dresden (1780) and London (1792). Followers and students of Bourgelat took on the mantle of continued development.


Veterinary education advanced as scientific discoveries were made and research was added to its remit.

Doctors and veterinarians have worked together to control and eradicate a great many diseases. They include Henry Bouley and Louis Pasteur (anthrax vaccination), Camille Guérin and Albert Calmette (BCG vaccine against tuberculosis) and Auguste Ramon (tetanus and diphtheria toxoids).

Today’s veterinary medicine benefits from state-of-the-art medical technologies and surgical techniques. Diagnostic ultrasounds and endoscopies are performed on a daily basis and scanners are used on animals too. Current studies are producing improvements in animal care as well as contributing to advances in human medicine.

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