Eddie Straiton

First of the 'TV vets'
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The Independent Online

It is not so long ago that professional medical men, whether doctors or vets, kept their heads down, got on with the job and avoided personal publicity like the plague. Now, you can hardly turn on the television without seeing a vet. Eddie Straiton was the first of the "TV vets".

Edward Cornock Straiton, veterinary surgeon, writer and broadcaster: born Clydebank, Renfrewshire 27 March 1917; OBE 1998; twice married (one son, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Stone, Staffordshire 30 October 2004.

It is not so long ago that professional medical men, whether doctors or vets, kept their heads down, got on with the job and avoided personal publicity like the plague. Now, you can hardly turn on the television without seeing a vet. Eddie Straiton was the first of the "TV vets".

He started a regular television feature in 1957, giving advice to farmers on animal health and welfare topics on Farming Today. His engaging personality, Scottish accent, down-to-earth advice and straightforward methods brought him immense popularity with his audience. He went on to broadcast widely, and write a series of popular veterinary books (by "the TV Vet") on farm animals and domestic pets. The books themselves had a much more attractive format than conventional veterinary texts of the time. They were translated into many languages and sold almost a million copies worldwide.

Straiton wrote from experience; he had built up a large and successful practice in Staffordshire, which he continued to run at the same time as developing his media activities. His broadcasting reached its peak audience when, in 1977, he took up a regular slot on BBC Radio's Jimmy Young show. For 16 years, he dispensed anecdotes and advice about animals to four million or so regular listeners.

Eddie Straiton was born at Clydebank. He studied at Glasgow veterinary school where he formed a friendship with J.A. Wight, which lasted all their respective lives. Wight is, of course, better known as the author James Herriot. Years later, Straiton was one of the advisers on the television series of Herriot's All Creatures Great and Small.

Not only were they fellow countrymen and contemporaries, Herriot and Straiton were of similar appearance. Their temperaments, however, were very different. Whereas Herriot was rather shy and retiring, Straiton was an outgoing extrovert. His energy was prodigious. Herriot said that more than to any other quality, Eddie Straiton owed his success to the fact that he never got tired.

The high profile that he maintained meant that he ruffled quite a few feathers among the more staid members of the veterinary establishment. To some, the mere fact that he appeared on television was an affront. And his proclivity for stripping to the waist to assist with a calving in his television programme did not meet with universal approval. Some of the techniques he demonstrated were felt to owe more to tradition than to contemporary practice. He, however, prided himself on being among the most up-to-date of veterinary surgeons - he was, for example, a pioneer in the application of embryo transfer methods to pig breeding and in the improvement of obstetrics techniques in the cow.

When he wrote an article extolling the usefulness of the new radiotelephone in servicing a large practice, he remarked that he covered 60,000 miles a year in doing so. He shrugged off a comment that, in those pre-motorway days, he must have spent about eight hours a day in his car before seeing an animal: "I get up early," he said.

But it was for one of his anecdotes on the Jimmy Young show that Straiton got into really hot water. In 1981 he told a story that he and a colleague had had a contest to see who could more quickly perform the operation to neuter (or spay) a female cat by removing its ovaries. Straiton opened up his cat. "I put my hand down", he said, "and found it wasn't a female, it was a tom."

There were repercussions. Allegations of incompetence, and ill-treatment of the animal, led to a charge of disgraceful conduct by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.

The disciplinary hearing about the "cat spay race" turned into something of a show trial, with Straiton the leading performer. He had among his supporting cast of witnesses Robert Hardy, the actor who played Siegfried in the Herriot television series, who testified to his kind attitude towards the animals in the programme. Straiton maintained it was all a joke and that he had been accused of misconduct because some other vets were "gunning" for him. He was found guilty of disgraceful conduct, but let off with a warning.

By no means all vets were put off by Straiton's highly individual manner, however. Colleagues in his own practice were vociferous in his support. There were not a few veterinary surgeons who testified to the help Straiton had given them when they were in difficulties. James Herriot himself told of how, when he had been ill, Straiton turned up on his doorstep, packed Herriot and his wife off to Straiton's Majorcan villa and ran his practice for a month while he recovered.

Straiton's own practice, which he started in the 1940s with £100 borrowed from a farmer and the gift of an old Ford car from his prospective father-in-law, became one of the most successful in Staffordshire. The death of his son in 1962 brought about a change of direction; he moved from Stafford to the nearby village of Penkridge and started again. Once more his energies brought rewards and his new practice soon had one of the first registered veterinary hospitals in the UK.

In retirement, he continued to fire off letters to the veterinary press, always hand written in his unmistakable bold script, giving his opinions on the current state of the veterinary world. This, he implied, had gone into decline as the number of women vets increased.

Always idiosyncratic, Eddie Straiton was a groundbreaking individual whose devotion to his profession was undoubted even when his methods of promoting it seemed controversial.

Edward Boden