Professor Alan Betts
Modernising Principal of the Royal Veterinary College
Tuesday 27 December 2005
Alan Betts was a veterinary virologist, who found his forte as an educationist and administrator. He was also a man of strong personality, resolution and ambition. All those qualities were brought into play when he was appointed Principal and Dean of the Royal Veterinary College, London University, in 1970.
At that time, a long period of relatively generous funding of higher education was coming to an end. While maintaining or improving academic standards, Betts had to turn the college into a lean, cost-efficient outfit managed on business lines. It was a task to which he was well suited. His scientific qualifications had been complemented by a growing interest in business studies triggered during a period of study in the United States.
He had, too, the strength of character to carry through the radical changes he felt were essential for the continued health of the oldest veterinary school in the country. The Royal Veterinary College, established in 1791, had become set in its ways. And although a school of London University, it considered itself an institution apart. Betts saw it was necessary to adapt to the new developments in teaching methods that were then taking place and to change the college's isolationist attitude.
Some of the changes he introduced were, not surprisingly, found indigestible by a number of colleagues, but the management and fundraising skills he applied with vigour saw the building of new facilities, particularly at the RVC's Hawkshead campus in Hertfordshire, and the application of information technology to bring in interactive teaching methods. These developments substantially reinforced the college's case for survival when a number of UK veterinary schools were threatened with closure in 1987.
The resolution with which Betts pursued his aims had its roots in the difficulties he had faced in his early life. Born of farming stock in Norfolk, his early childhood was blighted by tuberculosis picked up from infected milk. He had little formal schooling until he was nine. During this period the farm was badly affected by swine fever which destroyed its pig herd. It was this event that fired his ambition to become a vet and help prevent such catastrophes; he duly qualified from the RVC in1949.
A short period in general practice was enough to convince him he was better suited to research. An Animal Health Trust scholarship enabled him to take up a place at the Institute of Animal Pathology where, appropriately, his research projects included the virus responsibility for swine flu. He also did valuable work on the production of "sterile" piglets to help in disease studies.
On completion of his scholarship, and gaining a PhD from Cambridge in 1952, he was appointed first as a Demonstrator and then as University Lecturer in Veterinary Virology. During his time at Cambridge, a Commonwealth Fund Fellowship enabled him to spend two years in the US. There, at Cornell University, he further broadened his experience and gained his introduction to business management studies.
In 1964, Alan Betts moved back to his Alma Mater, the RVC, on appointment as Professor of Microbiology and Parasitology, London University, where he was to spend the rest of his career. He became Principal in 1970, finally retiring from that post in 1989, after 25 years at the college. This period included a spell as Deputy Vice-Chancellor of London University (1984-88), fulfilling his ambition to integrate the RVC more closely with the university.
Betts exercised his energy and talents extensively. In the wider veterinary field, he served on the councils of both the British Veterinary Association and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and at different times acted as treasurer for both. Among many other actives, he became chairman of an EC committee advising on veterinary education, a long-serving member of the British Pharmacopoeia Commission and chairman of the Veterinary Research Club.
He also spent time as a WHO consultant on virology, a year as a visiting fellow at the graduate school of administration, University of California (Davis) in 1982 and was deputy chair of Wye College between 1976 and 1988.
When he retired from the RVC in 1989, he left a college that had been transformed - although he felt there was still work to be done (the old buildings in central London were still part of the establishment) - into a thoroughly modern institution.
As with many men of his character, retirement brought not a diminution of activity for Betts, rather a change of direction. His academic and administrative experience was called on by such as the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, of whose council he was a member for 10 years up to 1997 and the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, of which he was a Trustee from 1990 until the time of his death. In his final years, he also devoted much energy to the Comparative Clinical Science Foundation, which seeks to promote research in areas of joint veterinary and medical interest.
As a relaxation, Alan Betts became a skilled glider pilot. One of his former colleagues, Professor Bob Michell, said, "Perhaps that is how we should remember him: eyeing the horizon, judging the clouds and effortlessly scaling the heights where brilliance remains undiminished."
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