News & Press: NZVA news

The accidental veterinarian

Monday, 3 June 2019  
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VetScript Editor's pick: June 2019

Graham Wallace reckons he was “hijacked” into veterinary medicine, but he made more than a decent fist of it in a multi-decade career spanning large animal work in rural Northland and vaccine development for Wellcome. Now the 94-year-old has written a memoir. Eleanor Black reports.

To be a veterinarian in New Zealand 60 years ago was to be a James Bond type, but with superior diplomacy skills.

As Graham Wallace tells it, graduate veterinarians had virtually no support, farmers could be hostile or feeble (nipping off to drink whisky rather than witness an animal in pain) and success or failure often turned on timing and luck.

Mayhem, mischief, medicine – “it’s all in the book,” says Graham, the 94-year-old author of the memoir Vet on the Go.

It’s a blustery morning at Auckland’s Kohimarama Beach and Graham has already had his coffee, been for a walk and picked up a packet of crackers to take home with him on the bus. He bends to stroke a chatty terrier, but has never worked with domestic animals. “I love cows, I just can’t see past them,” he says, laughing. “I honestly love them.”

Graham describes the process of helping a calf into the world as a sort of magic, and says an animal in trouble understands when someone is on their side. “There is a wonderful trust there.”

Looking back over his long career, he says the first two years in practice, newly married and based at Maungaturoto, were his favourite. “But it just about killed me. I never had any time off for three months. We were all one-man practices. There was nobody we could talk to, you had to work it out yourself. We were put to the sword. I believe veterinary science today owes us a hell of a lot – we set a good path for it to follow.”

Graham covered his Northland patch in a green Morris Minor that was prone to valve grinds. “It was a menace, but we didn’t know anything different.”

He serviced 400 farmers and was on call from the time the telephone exchange opened at 6am until it closed at midnight, seven days a week. His “wonderful” wife Joy hardly saw him.

“In this day and age she would have walked out on me,” he says. “I was never home – and when I was home, I was trouble. Hahahahaha!”

One summer night, when Joy was heavily pregnant with their daughter Linda, Graham encouraged her to accompany him on a call-out, thinking the drive would make her feel better. He left her parked in a paddock while he tended a distressed calving cow in a nearby shed. Two curious bulls put their heads through the car windows. When Joy rolled up the windows, they started to playfully rock the car from side to side, and when she hit the horn to summon help, one panicked and tore off a door handle.

You can imagine the mood of the drive home, during which Graham had to hold the door shut with his arm.

Graham didn’t plan to become a veterinarian, and views his career as a happy accident. “Somehow I got hijacked into it. Boy oh boy, I’ve loved it!”

A child of the Depression, he saw his father’s fibrous plasterboard business fail and understood why his parents wanted the security of an accounting career for him. He tried it briefly, but yearned for fresh air.

Graham was enrolled in Massey Agricultural College when he spotted the newspaper ad that changed his life.

It offered veterinary students loans and ship passage to train at the University of Sydney. The scheme had been set up by the Meat, Dairy and Wool Boards, and graduates had to work a five-year bond back in New Zealand once qualified. “It was outdoors work, and you got to go to Sydney. I thought, ‘That’ll do!’”

He went with his gut, and it turned out to be a fantastic adventure. Similarly, when a burned-out Graham left Northland for a Department of Agriculture job in Auckland, he chose an unexpectedly entertaining path. Among his duties, he tested imported animals that needed to be quarantined at Motutapu Island in the Hauraki Gulf. Using a crane and horse box, his team would collect the animals from ships and convey them to the island, where they would be picked up by a Land Rover and trailer.

“Bloody hell, that was a picnic!” Graham remembers. “It was a Navy crane, and they never looked after it. We never had a clue in the world if it would work.”

They almost lost a boar when it ran off the edge of the wharf into the water. The ship’s captain spotted the boar swimming and managed to guide it towards land with a lifeboat.

In 1959, Graham was in line for a promotion that would have taken him to Wellington. He was not keen to move his young family from Auckland (Linda, now 8, was settled at school, and son Dene was a new entrant) so he accepted a job with the animal health products company Wellcome.

This was where he spent the rest of his career, making batches of vaccines according to instructions from the London office, and later developing his own. He is most proud of Multine 5, still in use today and considered the gold standard for protecting sheep, goats and cattle against pulpy kidney, tetanus, blackleg, black disease and malignant oedema.

“Multine 5 is still the best vaccine. I made that bloody thing 50 years ago!”

Now in his 10th decade, Graham says he has no real complaints. He maintains a keen interest in veterinary practice and animal welfare (he believes farmers should provide animals with more shelter than is customary in New Zealand, and worries about potential carcinogens in plasticwrapped hay). He has had bladder cancer twice and nerve cancer once, and, while he remains active, he no longer drives. The worst thing is that he lost Joy.

“In July it will be 11 years since she died. I was 83 and she was 83. She died in my arms. I gave her something to eat and turned around and her plate dropped to the floor,” he says. “After she died I thought, ‘What do I do now?’”

He started to walk, long, bracing walks along the seaside at St Heliers and Kohimarama, where he is well known.

One day he stopped at Cafe Kohi, still a favourite haunt, and there he met his great friend Jane Dyke, who encouraged him to write the book.

“She is my girl-friend. Not my girlfriend: my girl-friend,” he says. “It’s uncanny that I am 94 and she’s 54, 40 years different, and yet we get on like a house on fire.”

While he didn’t know how to even begin work on a book, Jane did. “She said, ‘Start talking, start talking, start talking’,” he explains, drumming his fingers on the tabletop. She recorded Wallace’s stories, and helped him find a publisher, a process that took two and a half years.

“I’m an unknown. Who the hell am I to write a book?” he laughs. “But I say it’s a bloody good book. I’ve had a great life, I really have. I have loved veterinary science.”