Ireland's oldest vet turns 100
A veterinary surgeon who "loved working with the farmers more than the money" will celebrate his 100th birthday tomorrow and become the oldest-ever member of his profession in the country.
Born into a farming family at Blean, Toomevara, Co Tipperary on May 29, 1913, Jack Powell – the youngest of five children of Bob and Ellen Powell – has lived through two world wars, the War of Independence and the Civil War.
During his time, he qualified as a pilot with the Royal Air Force (RAF) and endured some horrific destruction of farm livestock during an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Britain. He also became Europe's longest-serving vet when he completed over 75 years in practice in 2011.
Although his entire family were hit by the deadly Spanish flu that killed millions in 1918, he has inherited the longevity gene from his late mother who lived to be 102, while brother Jim, who died in 2012, also reached 100.
Recalling the Spanish flu, he says the family were all bed ridden at that time.
"I believe we survived by the greatest power of all, the power of natural healing – I still have great belief in the power of natural healing," Jack insists.
"The healing power of nature has now been almost neutralised by the overuse, underuse and misuse of antibiotics," he adds.
"The human body – or animal body – is a wonderful mechanism geared to deal with most natural and some unnatural conditions. But our immune systems were probably a lot sharper than today, because we weren't dependent on drugs at that time."
However, the centurion admitts that antibiotics and sulphamizine have saved millions.
Jack worked on the family farm from an early age and it was during this time that he developed a love of animals which influenced his decision to study to be a vet. However, when he qualified in 1936, there was no work for him in Ireland.
"There were very few farm vets in practice in Ireland at that time. In north Tipperary there was a vet in Nenagh and one in Roscrea.
"They usually got around to the farm calls by bicycle and had to spend a lot more time on treating the symptoms because they did not have the drugs that are there today," he recalls.
He secured his first job at Longstanton, near Cambridge, England, where he worked for Major Charlie Townsend, the owner of a large equine practice. The job, which paid the princely sum of £3 a week, brought him into contact with many top horse trainers whose steeds he regularly treated.
When Britain was hit by a serious outbreak of foot and mouth disease in November 1937, he got the opportunity to work for the Ministry for Agriculture at £2 a day. He was based in the Cambridgeshire town of Peterborough and during his time there he went on to deal with diseases such as anthrax, swine fever and sheep scab.
Jack was also involved in the very first testing of animals for TB when the British ministry started its Tuberculosis (Attested Herds) Scheme to wipe out TB in 1938.
The Tipp man joined the RAF in 1941, qualifying for his pilot's licence flying the famous Tiger Moth.
After the war he moved to the US where he received further training, before returning to the Ministry for Agriculture in Britain for a short period after which he came home to Ireland and set up his own practice in north Tipperary in 1947.
"When I came back to Nenagh in 1947 they were almost TB free in England. We hadn't even started here. I tested my first herd in 1954 when the scheme was launched. It was quite common to have all the cows and calves test positive for the disease, along with one or two members of the family."
The pasteurisation of milk and the punching and removal of reactors brought about a big improvement but he consistently stressed to the Department of Agriculture that leaving TB infected badgers behind on farms was a mistake.
However, the scheme was fundamental to the growth of the veterinary profession.
"Without testing a lot of practices would not have existed. In eradicating TB we eradicated a lot of clinical conditions which were primarily due to TB and the overall health of cattle became much better," Jack maintains.
"Today we are the envy of farmers in a lot of countries. We have a very healthy cattle herd and the standard of veterinary surgeons today in this country is excellent."
Jack also has strong views on the future of the profession in Ireland.
"We can vaccinate against so many diseases that prevention is now one of the primary roles of the veterinary surgeon. Reduced blood and TB testing and an increasing number of lay people doing factory inspections means that the number of farm vets will gradually reduce and the biggest side of the practices will be small animals," he predicts.
Jack's love of horses from his earliest days never left him and he was widely recognised as an excellent horse vet.
He also owned a few, among them Royal Frolic which he purchased as a foal for £400. He was a winner at the RDS Horse Show, before going on to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1976 by five lengths at 14/1 after being sold to a British trainer.
Jack was also synonymous throughout his life for driving a Volkswagen. He purchased his first 9hp Beetle in 1953. It was the first of 13 Beetles he would own, followed by other VW models. Today he drives his 40th from the same stable, a VW Polo.
He has been presented with a Gold Medal by the Veterinary Council of Ireland in recognition of his long service.
He has also been honoured by the Irish Shows Association, which he helped found and served as its first chairman.
Jack has also taken a lifelong interest in the preservation and improvement of Irish bloodstock as a member of the Hunter Improvement Society and the recently formed Traditional Irish Horse Association.
On the eve of his 100th birthday, he says that he would gladly do it all again.
"I loved the work, I loved meeting the farmers and I loved having a bit of banter with them. I didn't do it for the money."
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