The fascinating tale of Maria Dickin, founder of the PDSA
Maria Dickin founded the PDSA and helped countless pets in the process. Pam Nockemann tells her story.
MARIA ELISABETH DICKIN, CBE, is the unsung heroine of animal rights who single-handedly took on the establishment (in the form of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons) and won.
She was a typical well-to-do woman of her time, performing good works among the poor of the East End of London but feeling helpless as she saw their pets scavenging in gutters.
One night her own little Yorkshire terrier was in distress and she knew she would have to take him to a vet. Then she thought of the animals she’d seen roaming wild with sores, disease and broken limbs; their owners unable to afford treatment for them.
She decided there and then that she would do anything she could to help alleviate their suffering. Thus, in November 1917, the PDSA was born.
Maria was then in her forties, childless, married to a successful accountant. It was still definitely a man’s world but this daughter of a Wesleyan minister opened the first charitable animal clinic whilst the veterinarian profession looked on with scorn.
Her motto was “If you want a job done, do it yourself” and she put up a sign outside a Whitechapel building, stating: Bring Your Sick Animals! Do Not Let Them Suffer! All Animals Treated. All Treatment Free.
Word spread and soon people queued for hours with their pets to receive free treatment for them. Neither Maria nor her workers had veterinary training but practice is the fastest way to learn.
The law prevented people from calling themselves veterinary surgeons but did not stop them caring for animals.
From these humble beginnings in the Whitechapel basement the PDSA grew rapidly. Within four years, there were seven pet clinics across London treating 40,000 animals and a horse-drawn caravan became the first “mobile clinic”. More clinics sprang up outside London, then Paris, the Middle East and other parts of Europe.
By now, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) considered Maria a threat to their livelihoods – not strictly true as the owners of the animals she treated couldn’t afford vet’s fees.
Their fury was compounded by a bequest from an American benefactor living in Paris, allowing a large, modern pet hospital to be built there and in 1926, a £50,000 legacy from Sarah Martha Grove Hardy was used to set up a Sanatorium in Essex employing a registered veterinary surgeon.
It had numerous wards and a spacious operating theatre; stables, kennels and training facilities for PDSA staff. The RCVS attempted to claim part of Sarah’s bequest, saying it constituted a public trust and the profession should oversee any animal care projects, but was unsuccessful.
In the same year, the Central Veterinary Society (an organisation which represented the interests of its vets) held a meeting to discuss the threat of the pet charities, for there were others by now.
Maria did not attend but had one supporter there, Captain R. Cornish-Bowden MRCVS, who’d visited the PDSA Headquarters on a day when 100 people and animals were waiting to be seen.
He told the meeting that he’d seen a “quack” alleviating the suffering of the animals, who’d had a better means of studying their sickness than was ever accorded to himself at the Royal Veterinary College.
Furthermore, the man had 30 years’ experience and handled his animals with a great deal more care and skill than many veterinary surgeons did.
The RCVS opposition continued but the PDSA opened more clinics, mobile clinics and the Busy Bees Club to encourage children to take care of their pets.
Meanwhile, the popularity of the motor car was reducing the number of working horses which meant less work for the professionals – which naturally compounded their ill-feelings towards Maria.
In 1931 she told them in a letter to “open your own dispensaries where there are factories, mining, manufacturing and dockland areas with no help for sick animals . . . live among it as we do . . . do the same work we are doing . . . instead of spending your energy in hindering us.”
They eventually came to an agreement with Maria (now semiretired) that her larger clinics would hire a veterinarian and smaller ones would consult a local vet when necessary, although the vets were not obliged to accept this work.
World War II saw the founding of PDSA Animal Rescue Squads to save pets injured and lost during the Blitz and the Allied Forces Mascot Club, which provided morale-boosting companionship for soldiers, sailors and airmen.
In 1943 Maria created the Dickin Medal for animal courage, devotion and bravery carried out in the line of duty.
It became known as the Animal Victoria Cross and has been awarded on 63 occasions: to 28 dogs, 31 pigeons, three horses and one cat. More recently, it was awarded to dogs involved in the 9/11 tragedy at the World Trade Centre.
Maria died in 1951 but her work continued with the opening of Pet Hospitals; the introduction of an in-house training scheme for veterinary nurses; a lottery to boost funds and the Pet Protectors Club – replacing the Busy Bees – to help combat rising levels of pet obesity.
After one hundred years, the PDSA is proud to carry on with her aim of helping the sick and injured pets of the poor.
In October 2015, English Heritage erected a blue plaque at her birthplace in Hackney and she is, rightly, remembered worldwide as one of the greatest figures in the history of animal welfare. n
Taking help to where it was needed in 1921.
Maria with some “Busy Bees”.
Rip with his handler, Mr King.
Olga, Upstart and Regal.