Obituary: Sam Hignett

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The Independent Online
Sam Leslie Hignett, veterinary surgeon; born 3 August 1908; President, Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons 1973-74; CBE 1974; married Muriel Ashdown (one son, one daughter); died 2 March 1994.

MILE RUNNERS are usually tall chaps, length of stride being an advantage over that distance. Sam Hignett, in his day a national-class runner, was short. He overcame the disadvantage of height by training and application. His capacity for work, to which his energy and intellect made symbiotic contributions, was formidable. Allied to his genuine breadth of interest, the combination helps explain how this son of a Shropshire farmer became a leading figure in the veterinary profession. He was also universally and immensely well liked.

Hignett qualified from the Royal Veterinary College in 1931, when veterinary practice and the farming industry were still largely influenced by the precedents of the Edwardian era. The impetus for change was kick-started by the need for better productivity caused by the Second World War. At that time, he was a government veterinary investigative officer - one of the first - based in Leeds. He became one of the small group that toured the country teaching the techniques of bovine pregnancy diagnosis, then little practised, that were the cornerstone of increased output of dairy products and beef. At the same time the seeds were sown of the cattle health schemes that were implemented after the war and led to the virtual eradication of tuberculosis and brucellosis.

In 1943, Hignett joined Burroughs Wellcome & Co and was given the task of setting up the firm's veterinary research station at Frant, in Sussex. Burroughs Wellcome (now better known as the Wellcome Foundation) was a world leader in vaccine manufacture in both human and animal applications and Hignett, with his ability to put research findings to practical applications, was the ideal choice for director. He developed a real flair for scientific administration and made such a success of the job that he spent the rest of his career at Frant, eventually assuming the responsibility for veterinary research world-wide.

One of his first tasks was to develop, and then produce, a vaccine against scrub typhus for the forces engaged in the Far East campaign. The war over, research continued on improvements in bovine fertility. A gifted teacher (his first job had been as a lecturer), Hignett instituted courses at Frant in which veterinary surgeons, initially returning ex-servicemen, were brought up to date with the latest findings. Those courses are still remembered for their effective combination of hard work followed by convivial relaxation. They were an important precursor of the continuing professional education courses that are now routine.

While all this was going on, Hignett found time for an amazing variety of other activities. As a tenant farmer, with his wife Muriel ('Mick'), he ran a prize-winning farm and organised highly popular farm walks for the local branch of the National Farmers' Union. His great affection for the horse developed into a professional expertise that made him in great demand as an official veterinarian at national and international horse shows and races. His firmness and tact in dealing with accidents occurring in the stress of competition were legendary. He was, incidentally, an expert shoeing blacksmith.

His pioneering enthusiasm persisted throughout his working life. In the 1970s, 40 years after he qualified, he saw the importance of fish farming and was instrumental in persuading the Nuffield Foundation to set up the Institute of Aquaculture at Stirling University.

In the wider sphere of professional activity, Hignett's talents were put to effective use. He was an active member of local and national veterinary and animal welfare societies; almost invariably, he was called upon to serve as councillor, chairman or president of any organisation he joined. He advised the cattle industry in the Caribbean and in the Argentine and was a consultant to the World Health Organisation.

For 50 years, Sam Hignett was a presence at virtually every important veterinary event.

(Photograph omitted)