By Erin Lodes on February 18, 2019

As we move out of the era of Hammurabi and Hippocrates and into the current era, the amount of information we’re able to gather about the history of veterinary medicine increases. We have access to more records, even if those records have been translated and compiled in many different ways by many different people and cultures throughout the centuries.

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The Roman Empire

Records of veterinary medicine being practiced in the early part of the current era come primarily from the late Roman Republic and the length of the Roman Empire. (If, like me, you aren’t totally clear on this history, just a little clarification: Rome began as a republic in the eighth century BCE and became an empire in the first century CE. It has to do with Caesar.)

Keeping with what we know about veterinary medicine up to this point, the Romans were primarily focused on large animal medicine. Specialists were brought in to look after horses, mules, and oxen—animals who represented the greatest financial investment because of their importance in horse-racing, transport, and war.

Aspyrtus, a Byzantine veterinarian, who lived in the mid-fourth century CE, was an army officer. He trained cavalrymen in veterinary medicine and left behind a written record, which described infectious and contagious equine diseases with a decent amount of accuracy. His records prove his ability in diagnosing animals was especially astute for the time. Because of this, and perhaps because he is a rather well-known animal doctor, some historians call him “the father of veterinary medicine.”

The military wasn’t the only place the Romans made use of veterinarians. While veterinarians who served in the military came from “a variety of social strata,” the Roman imperial postal transport service kept a staff of slaves to take care of the injuries and illnesses of horses, mules, and oxen in their service.

During this time, it was common for herdsmen to take care of their own animals; they learned from books on agriculture that also might contain information about the care of farm animals. A well-known author of the time, Vegetius (yet another historical figure often called “the father of veterinary medicine”), likely began his education that way. He was just a man who owned horses and wanted to learn how to best take care of them. In the four books that he wrote regarding large animal medicine, it was obvious Vegetius wrote for people like himself: laymen.

The Middle Ages

After the fall of the Roman Empire came what is colloquially referred to as the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages, now referred to as the Middle Ages by historians, was the time between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance (think 500 CE to 1000-1300 CE). We see this time period as a noticeable lull in activity on our veterinary history timeline.

However, not all was “dark” during this time. Many texts were translated into Arabic by the Islamic empire, and Arabian horsemen continued the pursuit of veterinary knowledge. There also are numerous records of books from Spanish writers that involve various aspects of veterinary medicine. Toward the end of the 15th century, Spain even established the first veterinary schools on record, although they were short-lived.

The Renaissance and Enlightenment

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During the Renaissance came the invention of the printing press. (While there are records of printing presses in early China, the printing press didn’t appear in Europe until Johannes Gutenberg created it around 1450 CE.) There are a number of works on veterinary medicine published after the rise of the printing press, but Anatomia del Cavallo, a book on the anatomy of horses published by Carlo Ruini in Italy, is considered a major milestone in veterinary publishing.

The Renaissance was followed by the Age of Reason, also known as the Enlightenment, an age that renewed a focus on science and reason. Until the 1700s, veterinary medicine was still considered “veterinary art” rather than “veterinary science.” Veterinary medicine remained largely in the hands of farriers, who picked up their knowledge through apprenticeships. But, a new focus on science, combined with a series of animal plagues swept across Europe, changed the veterinary profession forever.

With the knowledge that the current practices of veterinary medicine weren’t going to be enough for an increasingly modern era, Claude Bourgelat sought and received permission to found a veterinary school in Lyon, France in 1761. This school is considered to be the real start of the veterinary profession, and is certainly the beginning of modern veterinary education.