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Saturday, April 5, 2014

Andrew Smith and the Ontario Veterinary College

By Donald F. Smith
Posted April 5, 2014

Among the most successful private veterinary colleges on the late 19th century, Andrew Smith’s Toronto Veterinary College heads the list. It surpasses the two Chicago colleges and Kansas City Veterinary College in number of graduates and, though it is hard to quantify quality, Toronto also had its share of high-impact graduates. Most importantly, when Andrew Smith affiliated his college with the University of Toronto in 1897, he in essence guaranteed its future transition from a for-profit equine college to one that would be sustained once the horse disappeared from the urban scene. Its successor is the Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph, Canada, a well-recognize center of excellence for veterinary education and research on the North American continent.

Like McEachran whose illustrious career was the subject of a recent story published here on April 4th, Andrew Smith was a 1861 graduate from the Royal Dick College in Edinburgh, Scotland. Smith and McEachran vied for the lead veterinary position that was established by the Board of Agriculture of Upper Canada (Upper and Lower Canada would be renamed Ontario and Quebec after Confederation in 1867). With the increasing value of livestock and the need for someone to safeguard against disease and also to develop a school to train veterinarians, the principal of the Edinburgh College chose the more dignified and less-headstrong Smith over the his rival. Both men were academically-sound, but Smith was more practical, “whose interest in education was with the veterinary art, not the science of veterinary medicine.”[1]  McEachran, an early proponent of the germ theory of disease, was a strong advocate for the science of veterinary medicine and, “perhaps long before it was practical, for higher entrance requirements, for a three-year course, and for a close affiliation with the medical faculty and with research scientists." [2]

Smith vs McEachran embodied the age-old antinomy [3] that persists to this day: art vs science, practice vs theory, pragmatist vs principled.  Feeling that Smith would be better qualified to manage the people and resources for a new college, he was chosen over McEachran for the new position in Upper Canada, and began practicing equine medicine in leased buildings in Toronto in January 1862. 

Smith's first veterinary lectures were delivered the following month and were open to the public. In 1864, the lectures had developed into a course which consisted of two six-month sessions over two years (similar to the British model). To complement the infirmary that he ran for equine clients, he added anatomic dissection facilities for the students. His first three graduates in 1866 were allowed to place “V.S.” after their name, making them distinct as veterinary surgeons from farriers and others with no formal training. [4]

Almost immediately, Smith’s for-profit college was successful. There being virtually no academic prerequisites, would-be veterinarians enrolled in huge numbers. And the curriculum wasn’t just for Canadians, as hundreds of US citizens flocked across the border to be trained by Smith, then returned to practice. In doing so, they hopped over James Law’s program at Cornell University, from which only four veterinarians graduated between 1868 and 1896. McEachran, who had been a close personal friend of Smith, taught with him for a couple of years, then parted ways and opened a rival college in Montreal.  Smith successfully withstood pressure for a more rigorous curriculum until 1906, when he finally announced that the course would be extended to three years. Two years later, the college (now the Ontario Veterinary College) became a provincial institution and he retired. For almost half a century, Andrew Smith ran the college in a way that reflected his personal views of admission, curriculum and practice more than any other contemporary figure in veterinary education. He graduated over 3,300 students. By comparison, McEachran graduated about 300 in the same time period, and James Law (Cornell) fewer than two hundred.

Andrew Smith's famous image embodied in his memorial medal,
awarded annually to Ontario Veterinary College graduate
(Photo by the author)
It is easy to be a critic of Andrew Smith’s unwillingness to embrace a more scientific aspect of veterinary medicine, and I have certainly been among that group at various times in my career. However, as I have studied the history of veterinary medicine, I have become more understanding of the reality of antinomy, whether it be land grant vs private college, research vs service or, as in the case of Andrew Smith, the practitioner vs the scientist.

Sure, I would have liked Smith to have been more willing to add a greater degree of rigor to his admission standards and curricular offerings. However, the sheer numbers of his graduates, and the positions that some of them attained in academia and practice, cannot be scornfully swept aside. Whom among us cannot celebrate the accomplishments of the great veterinary anatomist, Septimus Sisson (V.S. 1891); or the three sons of the legendary Edward Thomas Hagyard who graduated from Toronto between 1875 and 1888, and continued the legacy of what would become incomparable Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington, Kentucky.

The Toronto Veterinary College was renamed the Ontario Veterinary College and it moved 50 miles west to the rural town of Guelph in 1922 where it partnered with Agriculture and, later, Home Economics. Degrees were conferred through the University of Toronto until 1964 when the University of Guelph was formally inaugurated as a degree-granting institution.

The veterinary profession in North America derived a great deal of its influence and excellence from the three Edinburgh-educated Scots who arrived in Canada and the US in the 1860s, and Andrew Smith deserves an equal part of the legacy with his two more scholarly peers.

[1] Gattinger, F. Eugene. A Century of Challenge. The History of the Ontario Veterinary College. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Canada, 1962. P18.
[2]  Ibid.
[3] Two equally valid concepts that are mutually exclusive and essentially considered irreconcilable.
[4] A.M.Evans, "SMITH, ANDREW," in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Universite Laval, 2003, accessed March 28, 2013,