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J South Afr Stud. 2005 Sep;31(3):513-529.

Tropical Medicine and Animal Diseases: Onderstepoort and the Development of Veterinary Science in South Africa 1908-1950.

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  • 1Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, Oxford.


This article traces the development of agricultural science at the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute, near Pretoria, from its founding in 1908 until the 1950s, by which time many enzootic and epizootic diseases had either been eradicated, or were largely controllable through various forms of prophylaxis. The Institute demonstrated the political and economic significance attributed to the pastoral industry in South Africa and the conviction that scientific discoveries could increase output. During this period, researchers explicated the aetiology and provenance of hitherto mysterious diseases such as lamsiekte, geeldikkop and African horsesickness. They developed vaccines, some of which were adopted internationally. The nature of their investigations showed that veterinary science increasingly entailed more than just progress in biomedical procedures. Ecological factors, in particular the nutritional state of the veld, became a priority from the 1920s onwards as veterinarians saw their function as promoting animal health as well as eliminating disease. Dealing with contagious infections also incorporated less welcome, and at times controversial, approaches to disease control. The imposition of pastoral regulations illustrated the expanding powers of the South African state, founded on presumptions of scientific legitimacy. The article also explores the contribution made by African communities and settler farmers to the institutionalisation of veterinary knowledge, as well as the role South African researchers played in the evolution of a colonial, as well as an increasingly international, scientific culture.

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