Person NameSmith; Sir; Frederick (1857-1929); Major-General; Army Veterinary Surgeon; author
EpithetArmy Veterinary Surgeon; author
ActivityMajor-General Sir Frederick Smith was born in Hull on 19 April 1857. He was the son of John Smith, a quarter-master in the Army and his wife Mary Jane. He was the elder of twins whose brother died aged five of typhus in Dublin. His father died in India whilst on foreign service when Sir Frederick and his three younger siblings were still young, leaving their mother in straightened circumstances. Educated at the expense of the Patriotic Fund, he went to a “very good school” in England but hated school and did very little work.
Aged sixteen he left school and, still supported by the Patriotic Fund, entered the Royal Veterinary College in London on 1st October 1873. He is candid about his reasons for doing so, stating that he was not remotely interested in either the profession or animals in general, but seeing it as a means of eventually joining the Army ‘in a capacity in which I knew I could live on my pay’.
Nicknamed ‘foetus’ by his contemporaries on account of his frail appearance and youth, he loathed the College, although he was a conscientious student and worked tirelessly, from 5.30am until 11.30pm and travelling for hours by train and on foot to and from the College. There were no textbooks at the time and students had to rely on their own notes and those of previous students and they were lectured on human physiology and Smith commented that he had never ‘heard a lecture on veterinary physiology’ in his life.
Whilst at the College, he formed a lifelong friendship with John Henry Steel, who eventually married his sister. Steel was a major influence on Smith’s life: ‘he [Steel] moulded my life at its most plastic period’.
Smith was a passionate advocate of practical work for students and a critic of the profession’s insistence on teaching non-essential facts to the detriment of essential ones.
Despite warning his mother that he was certain to fail his final examination, he was awarded his diploma with ‘great credit’ when he was still only nineteen. He also won the Coleman Medal and several other prizes and medals.
Having applied to join the Army, his application was initially deferred and he was advised to get some practical experience, which he did, joining a large, mostly equestrian practice in Islington for eight months. He didn’t enjoy his time there, despite being very well regarded and refused an offer from owner to join the practice on a permanent basis. He passed the Army examination and was gazetted on 9th December 1876.
He was initially posted to an artillery regiment based in Woolwich. On being commissioned into the Royal Horse Artillery, he left for India on 21st October 1877 and was posted to Lucknow where he developed some inflammation of an eye which necessitated his return to England. His eye troubles were quickly cured by the prescription of glasses and he returned to India soon after. Meanwhile he had married Mary Ann Briggs on 27th November 1879 – very little reference is made to his wife in his autobiography, save for an admission towards the end that he devoted himself to his work, to the detriment of his family life. He was transferred to the 12th Lancers on his return to India and served with them from 1879 to 1885. On joining the 12th Lancers, he became particularly interested in problems caused by horses with sore back. Rejecting the then prevailing view that these were caused by careless riding, he eventually established that they were they were the result of ill-fitting saddles. His observations on the subject eventually resulted in the publication of ‘A Manual of Saddles and Sore Backs’ which became part of the Army Manual on the Care and Management of Horses. He also made an extensive study of anthrax, but described that time as ‘a period of great anxiety’, when every available treatment failed and over a hundred horses died of the disease. He also wrote and published papers on various subjects, including food and feeding, eyes and the results of experiments carried out on the action of medicines on horses.
John Steel had left the College by then and was also serving in India and together they founded the first veterinary periodical devoted to India, The Quarterly Journal of Veterinary Science in India and Army Animal Management(1882-1888). John Steel’s father was also involved in the venture. The journal made no money and the editors had to subsidise it out of their own pockets. Smith was invalidated back to England in 1885 and resigned as co-editor of the Journal in 1887 over a disagreement with John Steel’s father. John Steel had by then become Principal of the Bombay Veterinary School and died in 1888, when the Journal died with him.
Back in England, Smith devoted himself to research and teaching whilst at Netley College whilst on six months sick leave. He studied ventilation in stables and his results were published in 1887 in his ‘Manual of Veterinary Hygiene’. Rather alarmingly, he mentions in his autobiography that he had managed to blow himself up whilst working in the chemical laboratory at Netley.
Having been posted as Assistant Professor to the Army Veterinary School in Aldershot, he refused to teach the young officers the treatment of disease, believing that they should limit themselves to learning about the care and prevention of disease. He also lectured the farriers on nursing. His firm belief was the Army Veterinary School should become a major centre for research into animal disease. He was subsequently appointed Professor and worked at the School for nine years. He complained in his memoirs about the almost total lack of research facilities, despite which he seems to have achieved some significant research. He also deplored the attitude of the young officers he taught, who treated their stint at the School as a holiday. The supply of animal lymph for the vaccination of soldiers had until 1888 been the responsibility of the National Vaccine Institute. An outbreak of smallpox in that year caused a shortage of lymph and Smith put forward a plan for the Army to open its own vaccine institute, which was accepted. After taking a course in animal vaccination at the National Vaccine Institute, he opened an Army Vaccine Institute in Aldershot.
He wrote in 1892 there was considerable resentment amongst veterinary officer regarding their ‘position, prospects, pay and pension’. Smith published a list of recommendations for improvements to the promotion and pension of veterinary officers, including giving the Director General the rank of Major General. The recommendations were eventually accepted in full, although it took about ten years for this to happen. Wanting to inform potential candidates about life in the Veterinary Service, he wrote an article entitled ‘Veterinary Life in the Army’ which was published in the Veterinary Record under the alias of ‘Kudyard Ripling’(1892).
He left the School in January 1893 and went back to regimental duties, still in Aldershot. He deplored the fact that he only could accomplish such a large amount by being entirely self-centred and neglecting his social and family life. In that year he was also appointed Examiner in physiology for the diploma of the RCVS. He was posted to the remount depot in Woolwich in ‘1896 or 1897’, where he formed a lifelong friendship with his superior, Colonel Tollmer.
In the autumn of 1898 he was sent to the ‘Soudan’ [Sudan]. He confesses the anxiety that his lack of active service until then had caused him. In 1899 he was sent to South Africa, having gone to London to choose hundreds of horses for the war taking place there. His book, Veterinary History of the War in South Africa gives a detailed account of the two and a half years he spent there as Principal Veterinary Officer, in which he is scathing about some of the tactical aspects of the campaign.
He returned to England in 1906 as Principal Veterinary Officer to the Eastern Command. In 1907 he was appointed Director General of the Army Veterinary Service, thereby reaching ‘the top rung of the ladder’ after 31 years’ service. When the Territorial Force and Army Reserve Service were created in 1908 he was the driving force behind the establishment of the Army Veterinary Service as a separate directorate, something about which he felt strongly enough to take on the military establishment, with the help of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. However he then had to fight on to see some of his proposals pushed through, despite strong opposition from various quarters, including the Treasury. During that time he also encountered opposition from the Cavalry regiments who felt threatened by his attempts to remove the responsibility for treatment of sick horses from Cavalry officers. He established a veterinary store at the Woolwich depot which went on to keep the Armies in Europe, Asia and Africa fully supplied during the Great War.
He retired in 1910. A year after he left, the War Office agreed to form a separate directorate for the Veterinary Service as a result of which he wrote that ‘the future was assured’. He then devoted his time to research work. His Veterinary History of the War in South Africa was serialised in the Veterinary Record between 1912 and 1914. Having intended to publish his History as a book with a foreword by Sir Evelyn Wood, he was told that unless he removed Sir Evelyn’s foreword, he would have to delay publication until after the end of the war because it was so critical of Lord Kitchener and the Remount Service. He chose to delay publication and his book didn’t appear until 1919.
His name was removed from the reserve list after he stated that he would refuse to fight in Ulster if asked to do so. He volunteered for service with the Honourable Artillery Company when war broke out and was posted to Salisbury in an administrative capacity, where he set about organising the care of sick horses in his charge. He remained there for twenty-two months, until he retired once again in May 1916. He then spent eighteen months ‘munition making’ and also manufacturing surgical appliances. In December 1917 Major General Blenkinsop invited him to work with him in the War Office, a position he readily accepted. He finally retired in September 1919, when he devoted himself to new writing and revising his previous publications.
He suffered a heart attack in May 1928, despite which he went on working until his death on 27th July 1929. He was not a religious man and left instructions that his heart should be remove and examined by Sir Thomas Lewis and Dr Tom Hare, and his body cremated. He asked that his ashes and his heart should then be placed in the Pathological Museum of the RCVS (where they remain to this day), so that ‘I am not to be separated from the work I have loved so well’.
RelationshipsWas the older twin son of Joseph Smith, a quarter-master in the Army who died in India on foreign service when he was ten and of his wife Mary Jane. He also had three other siblings. His twin brother died of typhus aged five. He married Mary Ann Briggs on 27th November 1879. They had a daughter, born on 14th February 1891 and a son, born on 22nd January 1894.
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