James Rennell Atcherley: A life and death with horses – Part 1

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On Monday morning last, as Mr. James Atcherley, veterinary surgeon, of Bridgnorth, with his son James were proceeding from Bridgnorth in a gig, when near the first mile-stone the bridle bit broke. The horse finding his head at liberty dashed off at full speed towards Ludlow. After going a short distance, and near the Hundred-house, the young Mr. Atcherley jumped out of the gig, and fell heavily on his side, where he lay some time stunned by the fall, his head and face being badly bruised, and his arm broken. His father at the same time jumped out on the other side […] – Hereford Times, 20 March 1852.

Questions, questions. What led James Rennell Atcherley [] to become a veterinary surgeon, with a particular interest in horses? Was he the Mr Atcherley whose horse Ginger Sal ran in a race at the Wrexham meeting of 4 October 1826, which was open only to “horses not thorough-bred, belonging to the North Wales Yeomanry Cavalry”? And, in view of this report in Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle of 8 May 1825, how on earth did James live beyond the age of 24?

A very game and scientific mill took place on Tuesday last, at Muckley Cross, Shropshire, for ten sovereigns aside, between Mr. Richard Woof, of Thonglands, and Mr. James Atcherley, of Bridgnorth, veterinary surgeons—5 to 1 on the latter: 37 rounds were fought, in which science and courage, that would have done honour to a London Ring, were displayed, and Atcherley would not give in till he fell back insensible. The fight last 1 hour and 35 minutes. Atcherly was quite blind before he left the ground, and continues in a dangerous state.

I was staggered when I first discovered this news item, and I imagine James staggered quite a bit too towards the end of his marathon 37-round bout. Besides the rather shocking information about the boxing however, we learn a few other things from the above piece: by 1825 James Rennell Atcherley was a vet who lived in Bridgnorth, Shropshire, and he was in a position to wager ten sovereigns (£10 – not a small amount of money in those days) on the outcome of a fight! (An 1820s sovereign is shown left.)

A number of the cases which James dealt with as a vet were reported on in newspapers, or written about (by James and others) in veterinary journals. This means we can see something of his work, the details of which you might in some cases find as disturbing as the above report on James’s boxing match. The following example from 1835 for example reminds us that rabies was a threat to people and animals in Britain back in the 1800s and beyond (it was not officially eradicated until around 1920).

Hydrophobia.—A case of this alarming and distressing disease occurred in Bridgnorth, last Monday. A horse, the property of Mr. Lucas of that town, was in the morning found ranging about his pasture in an extraordinary manner, evidently considerably excited: he endeavoured to run open-mouthed at a man who entered the field; but fortunately fell before he reached him. Becoming calmer, he was led to the stable and bled, but another paroxysm soon supervened; and, turning round, he fastened upon the arm of the servant, who, with great difficulty, extricated himself; not, however, until the sleeve of both shirt and coat came away. The teeth did not penetrate any considerable way, but sufficiently so to communicate the disease, had not efficient means been resorted to by Mr. Newall (assistant to Mr. Proud), who cut out the surrounding parts, and subsequently used cauterization so effectually, that little doubt can be entertained as to the man’s safety. Mr. Atcherley, veterinary surgeon, was called in, and the horse continued tearing and fastening upon everything within his reach, and exhibiting all the symptoms of hydrophobia until evening, when no further doubt existing as to the nature of the disease, he was destroyed.

I wonder how many animals had to be euthanized because of rabies back then – and how many people had to endure the cutting away of tissue and cauterisation of the wound in attempts to spare them from this disease?

You may have noticed that the horse in the above article was treated by ‘bleeding’. Blood-letting was practised as a medical treatment from around 1,000 BC until shockingly recent times (the 1940s!), so its adoption as a means of treating animal patients is perhaps not surprising. The use (or rather abuse) of mercury as a ‘cure’ for diseases in human subjects in the past is also fairly well known, particularly its application in cases of syphilis. It was used against typhoid fever and parasitic infections too. This treatment too was borrowed by vets, including James Rennell Atcherley. In letter “From Mr. Atcherley to Mr. Percivall, on the treatment of distemper by mercury” printed in The Veterinarian of October 1842, James wrote:

[…] On the 20th of May I attended a thorough-bred two-year-old colt, belonging to Mr. T. Walters, of Hednesford: two months before he was attacked by that disease so generally understood by the term Distemper. When I saw him he had frequent and distressing cough, and great enlargement of the parotid glands. Four active blisters in succession had been applied, and other means, to remedy the cough, without any benefit being derived. I then determined to try mercury. […]

Mercury was administered morning and night for five days by James, after which: “The cough soon became much better, and the swelling of the glands was much reduced. By the 20th of June, that is to say, in a month after the first mercurial dose, the colt had entirely lost the cough; the enlarged glands had resumed their natural form, and he is now in steady work, with his wind perfectly clear.” Mercury, it seems, had rid the equine patient of distemper. As with human patients however, this poisonous metal may have caused harmful effects, and possibly even death, further down the line. But the toxicity of mercury in humans varies according to toxicity form of mercury, the dose received and the rate of exposure; it may be that the horse treated by James Atcherley was given a dosage over those five days which was small enough to avoid causing complications.

Another case of a horse to which James administered mercury was reported by him in a further communication, published in the December 1852 edition of the The Veterinarian. This time an eight-year-old carriage horse with a long-standing chronic cough was placed under James’s care, and once more the cough was seen off. In the same communiqué, James wrote about three mares he had successfully treated for “incipient poll-evil”. An interesting name for an animal malady, which could also have been used to describe the actions which led to James being charged with electoral conspiracy back in 1839!

“Poll evil”, according to Edward Mayhew (a vet writing in 1860), “consists of a deep abscess, ending in an ulcerous sore which has numerous sinuses. The situation of the affection is the most forward position of the neck, near the top of the head, which part is peculiarly liable to injury, especially in agricultural horses.” In writing to The Veterinarian James did not just relay details of the ointments he had used to treat poll-evil, he also, “with all due deference,” offered his opinion on the cause of the condition. He suggested that:

a frequent cause of poll-evil (at least in that part of the county of Salop in which I am located) may be traced to the use of a sort of martingale, attached by hooks to each side of the chain rein of the bridle of the cart-horse, and by a strong strap round the front and lower part of the collar; and I think the injury is produced not more by the fixed position of the head than by the jerk given to the collar, and, consequently, to this same martingale by any sudden springing forward which the animal may make, as from the stroke of a whip, &c., the horse in going indolently along generally pulling the collar forward in order to relieve the different muscles of the neck.

Horse showing (left) 1st stage and (right) 2nd stage symptoms of poll evil

The cause of another source of suffering for horses was the subject of James Atcherley’s next contribution to The Veterinarian, in June 1843. This time James was the author an article “On sore shins in horses”, which began as follows:

Many years of practical knowledge in the treatment and training of horses have induced me to inquire into the nature and consequences of what is vulgarly denominated sore shins, and to arrest the attention of owners and trainers of race-horses to the importance of the disease. I regret to say that it has hitherto been neglected, or, at least, has been regarded as an affection of too trifling a nature to warrant a serious and distinct consideration; but, as it is a disease of insidious origin, and one which too often disappoints the expectations of confiding owners, and implicates the future character both of the horse and the trainer, it must certainly deserve to be placed in as prominent a position as any of the more active diseases incidental to the animal economy.

James dismissed a number of possible causes of shore shins before proposing what he believed to be the true culprit: “I may say negatively, that they are not produced by upright shoulders, want of bone, twisted fore legs, lengths of gallops, heavy state of the ground, or pace, but I believe by carrying too much weight in their exercise.” James explained that this occurred when young horses were overburdened (with hoods and body-clothes in addition to the weight of a jockey) while being ridden hard over a distance. This, James stated, caused too much weight to be put on the shin bone (the large metatarsal or cannon bone) “before the material of which they are composed has become set”.

This article was praised by another vet later in 1843, who agreed with its conclusions. To James Atcherley’s credit, those who advise on the health of horses today broadly agree with him too. To give one example, the EquiMed website says: “Shin soreness is caused by the cannon bone’s attempt to repair damage to the dorsal aspect of the bone when the horse is exercised to the point of overload on the front cannon bones.” Hopefully James Rennell Atcherley’s words on the causes of sore shins in horses helped to prevent at least some of those bred for ‘sporting’ entertainment from being subjected to this painful but preventable condition.

An even more painful condition suffered by horses which veterinary surgeons were called upon to treat was enteritis. Returning to the words of vet Edward Mayhew in 1860: “Enteritis is a fearful disease, creating the greatest possible agony.” James encountered a severe case in 1845, another case about which he corresponded with The Veterinarian. “My patient was a half-bred aged gelding, in good condition,” James wrote. He went on to say: “On the 6th of June, at four o’clock A.M., I found him with cold extremities, pulse 80, constantly lying down, looking at his sides, and rising immediately—membranes pallid—had not voided any dung during twenty-fours—and contracted tongue.”

James remained with the gelding throughout the day, providing treatment, but at ten o’clock it appeared that the patient was “fast sinking”. Fifteen years later Edward Mayhew would recommend, as the final treatment to save such a horse, the application of an ammoniacal blister to the stomach (as shown in the picture above). James went for an even more drastic solution. Those of a nervous disposition may wish to stop reading now.

I now, as a dernier resource, determined to apply the actual cautery to the abdomen, which I did in the form of a large shovel, red hot, applying its whole surface, and drawing it slowly from the anterior portion of the epigastric and left hypochondriac regions to the umbilicus: the horse evinced not the slightest pain, cuticular sensibility having apparently ceased.

In twenty minutes after the application of the cautery the body and extremities had regained their natural warmth. The horse continued lying at length, breathing easily and softly, in which state he remained nearly two hours. He then rose, attempted to shake himself, and began searching his manger for food. The next day he was convalescent, but the burn on the abdomen was not healed for two months.

> On to Part 2.

Picture credits: 1820s King George IV sovereign: Public domain photo from the The Metropolitan Museum of Art. All other images: Adapted from illustrations in Edward Mayhew’s The Illustrated Horse Doctor, published 1860 and therefore out of copyright (from digital copy at Google Books).


[1] Hereford Times, 20 Mar 1852, page 8. “BRIDGNORTH. […] Fatal Gig Accident on the Ludlow and Bridgnorth Road.” Copy viewed at Findmypast.
[2] The Morning Post (London), Saturday 7 Oct 1826, page 3, column 5. “SPORTING.” Copy viewed at Newspapers.com.
[3] The Sporting Magazine, volume 19 (New Series), page 44 of the Racing Calendar section. Copy viewed at Google Books.
[4] Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, 8 May 1825, page 8. “BOXING.” Copy viewed at Findmypast.
[5] Sovereign (British coin). At: Wikipedia (website, accessed 30 Jun 2018).
[6] N McKay, L Wallis (2005),Rabies: a review of UK management. In: Emergency Medicine Journal, 22: 316–321 (“In the UK, rabies was officially eradicated in 1920”.) Copy viewed at BMJ website.
[7] Defra (2011), Rabies Disease Control Strategy, page 5 (“The British Isles (UK and the Republic of Ireland) have been rabies free since rabies was eradicated in 1922.”). PDF copy viewed at Gov.UK website.
[8] Staffordshire Advertiser, 26 Sep 1835, page 2. “Hydrophobia.” Copy viewed at Findmypast.
[9] Cristie Columbus (2016), In a world with no antibiotics, how did doctors treat infections? At: The Conversation website, accessed 30 Jun 2018.
[10] Mats Hanson (2003), A hundred and fifty years of misuse of mercury and dental amalgam—still a lesson to learn. Copy viewed at The Art Bin website, accessed 30 Jun 2018.
[11] The Veterinarian, XV: 178 / II:10 (New series), 556-7. Copy viewed at Google Books.
[12] Thomas Wakley (ed.) (1843), The Lancet, for MDCCCXLII.—XLIII. [1842-3]. Page 259 (“Effects of Mercury on Horses”). Copy viewed at Google Books.
[13] Robin A Bernhoft (2012), Mercury Toxicity and Treatment: A Review of the Literature. In: Journal of Environmental and Public Health, volume 2012, Article ID 460508.
[14] J R Atcherley (1842), Cases of Poll-Evil. In: The Veterinarian, XVI: 180 / I:12 (New Series), 708-9. Copy viewed at Google Books.
[15] Edward Mayhew (1860), The Illustrated Horse Doctor, page 433. Copy viewed at Google Books.
[16] J R Atcherley (1843), On sore shins in horses. In: The Veterinarian, XVI: 186 / II:18 (New Series), 311-313. Copy viewed at Google Books.
[17] E A Friend (1843), On sore shins in the horse. In: The Veterinarian, XVI: 188 / II:20 (New Series), 477-479. Copy viewed at Google Books.
[18] Anon (2014), Shin Soreness. At: EquiMed website, accessed 30 Jun 2018).
[19] J R Atcherley (1845), Case of enteritis suddenly relieved if not recovered through the application of the actual cautery to the abdomen. In: The Veterinarian, XVIII:208 / IV:40 (New Series), 197-9. Copy viewed at Google Books.