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.

The People's Friend - - 8 -

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.

G.I. Joe.

Olga, Up­start and Regal.


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