Making history: UK’s first black vet

October is Black History Month so this seems an appropriate time to look at the life and work of Jotello Soga the first black member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. 

Jotello Festiri Soga  (1865-1906) was born in the Transkei, South Africa, the fifth son of the Reverend Tiyo Soga.  Reverend Soga had been educated in Scotland and it followed that all his surviving sons were sent to the Dollar Academy in Fife.  Soga then went to the Dick Veterinary School in Edinburgh to study, graduating in April 1886.  On graduation he become the first black member of the RCVS and also the first South African-born qualified veterinary surgeon. 

Soga's entry in the RCVS roll of members

Soga’s entry in the RCVS roll of members

After qualifying he returned to South Africa, and then, in November 1889, he was appointed by Duncan Hutcheon, Chief Veterinary Surgeon of the Cape Colony, as ‘junior veterinary surgeon’ with responsibility for the veterinary services in the Victoria East region.

Here he worked on a programme of inoculation against lung sickness in cattle and developed his interest in bacteriology. Then Rinderpest broke out in 1896, decimating herds across the continent.  The treatment and eradication of this highly infectious disease was to occupy the rest of Soga’s  career with the Colonial  Veterinary Services.  In  1896 he attended the conference that was arranged to discuss how to tackle the outbreak, and then worked in the laboratory set up as a result.  It was at this lab that he met Robert Koch who was visiting to try out his possible cures and serum immunisation method. 

For the most part, though, Soga and Hutcheon worked in the field shooting cattle, often working excessively long hours.

In the Cape of Good Hope Board of Agriculture’s Report of the Colonial Veterinary Surgeon and the assistant veterinary surgeons for the year 1897 Soga writes about his experience with rinderpest:

“It was noticeable the peculiar direction the plague took, viz, down the course of the rivers and valleys…the ways in which the plague is carried from place to place are varied and extraordinary…it was supposed that the long leaps…[were] due to birds, but these outbreaks in almost every instance could be traceable to man”

Speaking of the efficacy of the inoculation programme he writes:

“The first inoculation was not always sufficient to render immunity complete, hence it was repeated…on recurrence any cases were generally of an exceptionally mild character.”

This strain of this exhausting work took its toll on both Soga and Hutcheon and they both took sick leave and then eventually resigned.

Soga continued to work as a vet in private practice and to write articles particularly for the Agricultural Journal of the Cape of Good Hope.  He co-founded the Cape Colony Veterinary Society in 1905and died aged 41 in 1906.  Soga had married Catherine Watson Chalmers, who came from Edinburgh, they had three daughters Catherine, Doris and Margaret.

Soga appears to have been forgotten by history so much so that Arnold Theiler , who is considered to be the father of veterinary science in South Africa,  named TJ Viljoen as the first South African  veterinarian. In fact Viljoen graduated in 1912 some 26 years after Soga.

Happily he has been ‘rediscovered’ and  is remembered in the naming of the Jotello F Soga Library  at the University of Pretoria,  and with an annual award from the South African Veterinary Association, the Soga Medal, which is given to veterinary students or veterinarians in “recognition of exceptional community service rendered by a veterinarian or a veterinary student”.

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