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The Carriage Commentator




Sarah talked to one of the veterinary profession's leading ladies - Dr Lydia Brown. A former President of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, Lydia has held many posts in the profession and done a huge amount to help vets in need. We chatted about lockdown, a peripatetic career, overhauling institutions and crucially, the availability of flour at the moment - May 2020. Our thanks to Sam Lane Photography for the Worshipful Company of Farriers for the below image of Lydia taken at the Apothecaries Hall in London

The adage ‘If you want something done, ask a busy person’ was first attributed to Benjamin Franklin but it has become so ingrained in our parlance and understanding of how we do (or don’t) operate, that we often don’t look beyond the sentiment.  Why do we ask busy people?  Most busy people have a ‘can do’ attitude and a way of ironing out problems, seeing solutions.  Perhaps they are selfless, have a sense of duty, put the needs of others before themselves or simply like a challenge. Who knows?  But they do get things done.   

This last week I’ve caught up with two of the busiest people in the equine world.  Both have efficiently adapted their working practice to the current situation and spend much of their time on Zoom, Skype or Microsoft Teams – or the phone.  Both made the time to chat.  Both were highly efficient and organised in our dealings, and importantly, both had such a clear understanding of what and how they do things.  They were so articulate, focused and no-nonsense about it all, I made a private note to be a bit more like them.  It’s no coincidence that they are both vets at the top of their professions.

The Zoom podcast I recorded with Dr Roly Owers followed on from the telephone chat with Dr Lydia Brown who was holed up at home in Salisbury.  Lydia and I have known each other for some years as she is a fellow Assistant on the Court of the Worshipful Company of Farriers where she is assigned the special task of organising the Equine Veterinary Student Award scheme (EVSA). 

The award was set up by the WCF with the support of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons to enable a selected senior undergraduate to spend a week with a host farrier to improve their working knowledge of the equine foot, its structure and shoeing practice.  They are selected by course leaders from one of the eight British Veterinary Schools[1] and the WCF has a panel of senior, approved farriers who ‘take on’ the students for a week.  The feedback at the end of the week, from all parties, is always extremely positive and the WCF published the students’ reports.  As Lydia said, ‘When I was asked to take over coordinating the scheme, it seemed like a good fit as I already knew the Deans of most of the vet schools.’ 

Lydia’s forefathers were farriers and so although professionally she was a marine vet who specialised in research, biotechnology and the commercial side of fish farming, she briefly considered becoming a Liveryman with the Fishmongers before settling on the Farriers.  Having graduated from Liverpool University she discovered while doing the course that she would like to specialise in aquaculture, which was in its relative infancy then.  Although she spent eight years of her formative career as a locum in general practice, which involved mainly small animals, although there were plenty of equine injections and vaccinations too, she went straight onto Stirling University in Scotland, which alongside Aberdeen, was one of the few institutions specialising in aquaculture in the 1970s and 80s. 

Realising that she was going to enjoy a peripatetic career, Lydia worked for several companies and even spent time in the USA at Mississippi State University, teaching vet students about catfish farming and conducting research on novel therapeutants.  One aspect of being involved in fish farming is the very practicality of it.  Much of the time you are outside dressed in wellies and oilskins, on the lochs, lakes, rivers and oceans, trying to maintain your balance as the ‘cages’ containing thousands of fish linked by metal walkways are being buffeted by the elements.  It’s a side of her working life which Lydia relished. 

Whilst working as an aquatic vet Lydia took up a number of veterinary political roles.  She was a member of the council of the RCVS from 1991-2007 and its President in 1998/99.  She was the third female to take up the position since 1844 and at the time one of the youngest Presidents.  When asked if, in the pre-#MeToo days her election ruffled any feathers Lydia, taciturn as ever, says, ‘I think some of the old guard was surprised when I was appointed over another, older male colleague.  But at the end of my tenure, one of two of them were gracious enough to congratulate me on doing a very good job.’  Added to which she was an anomalous ‘fish’ vet!

Not content with just having to live in the grace-and-favour studio which came with the role, Lydia continued to work hard as a business development manager for a veterinary pharmaceutical firm  while also studying for an MBA.  She had been told that she was going to be able to enjoy the riches of London life, the theatres and galleries but she says that there didn’t seem to be much time for that.  Instead, she redirected her office phone line to her London address and kept on working.

Mindful of her bent towards a sense of duty, what she calls her ‘service gene’, Lydia was instrumental in the establishment of a support system for vets who faced problems such as addiction and mental health issues, the Veterinary Surgeons Health Support Programme (VSHSP), which was launched in 1999.  Since then the programme has supported several hundred vets and their families.  In the 1990s Lydia was also a  member of the Steering Committee of VetHelpline, a 24/7 telephone line for vets and their families, as well as students and nurses who need to discuss emotional, addictive or financial problems empathetically with someone who has experience of the profession.

And in 2005 Lydia became a director of the Veterinary Benevolent Fund when it merged with VSHSP and VetHelpline, and was elected President of VBF in 2006. Rightly so, she was awarded an MBE for her services to the veterinary profession in 2010.

On top of her plethora of commitments, which involves retaining ties with the Scottish aquaculture industry in an expert role as an eminent academic and pharmacologist, serving on her local NHS Trust, running her own small biotech development company with an old friend and as former Chairman of a veterinary digital company which is currently ‘remotely’ hosting the World Veterinary Association conference, she has been asked to intrinsically unpick how the Farriers’ Company is structured.

Lydia enjoys the fact that the Company remains so aligned with its original craft and origin, out of which grew the veterinary profession.  She is aware of the history of both professions and how much they can, as much today as ever, learn from each other.  For the last few years, the Company has been very involved in the restructuring of the apprenticeship scheme, something that due to a great deal of Government red tape has been a drawn-out process.  Now that that hurdle has been overcome, the current Master felt it was as good a time as any to look, with 21st century eyes, at how things are done.  And who better to ask than Lydia. 

Bringing all her academic, analytical and commercial prowess to the task, at the last count she has spent over 40 hours on it.  But ever modest, she has said that she has relished the demanding brief, as someone who enjoys finding consensus and progressing through consultation.  She says wryly that before it’s accepted and signed off, there may be those who may feel this is change for change’s sake, but on a personal level, as long as she feels at the end of the task she has given her best and made something happen, she will be happy.

Admitting that she is naturally a quiet person who is a ‘doer’, Lydia is one to hide her light under a bushel.  But her long list of achievements in the service of the veterinary industry and the well being of those who work in it, about which she is extremely humble, is testament to her self-drive and compassion.  Yet, as we rounded off our conversation, it was a very earthy topic on which we ended.  Discussing how we are finding lockdown (needless to say Lydia is completely pragmatic about it) she said that like many of us she is struggling to find flour but had managed to locate some online.  But in order to bring the total shop to the required level, she had to order some extra gin.  And on the subject of the lockdown, she ended by saying, ‘Thank goodness for gin.’  A sentiment many of us can relate to at the moment.

(Afternote: She got the gin …. and the flour!)

[1] Current universities are Cambridge, Glasgow, the Royal Dick (Edinburgh), Bristol, the RCVS (London), Liverpool, Nottingham and Surrey