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Dr. Meg Smart. Supplied photo.

Smart blazed trail for female veterinarians

Dr. Marion (Meg) Smart wanted to be a veterinarian from the time she was nine years old, but it wasn't a popular career for girls in the 1960s.

"In those days it was discouraged," recalls Smart, who enrolled at the University of Guelph's Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) in 1964. "People believed that veterinary medicine wasn't an appropriate career for women; nursing and teaching were encouraged."

She proved them wrong. By the end of her first year, Smart ranked third in her class. In 1968, she became the first female graduate in OVC's 125-year history to receive the Andrew Smith Memorial Medal for academic proficiency.

Thus began a career of many firsts for Smart who was always up for the challenges that she faced as a woman veterinarian in a profession historically dominated by men.

In June 2014, Smart retired from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) — a place that she first visited in 1968 as a clinical pathology resident.

Following a one-year residency at the newly established WCVM, she returned to Ontario with her husband, Dr. James Smart. The couple had met in Saskatoon where Jim had been working in the WCVM's Department of Clinical Studies.

The Smarts planned to establish a veterinary clinic, but plans changed when they were offered faculty positions at the OVC – James in field service and Meg in clinical pathology.

Four years later the Smarts, with their two sons, returned to WCVM where Jim joined the college's field service section and Meg, the large animal medicine section.

"I had raised 4-H calves and won the Upjohn Award for large animal medicine at graduation," says Smart. "When they told me they had a term position available in the Large Animal Clinic, I thought, ‘Working with large animals in Western Canada – what an experience for a woman! It may be difficult.' But actually it was a very positive experience. The farmers quickly accepted me as did the students and most of my colleagues."

During the 1970s, many western Canadian farmers began raising exotic cattle breeds such as Simmentals and Charolais. These breeds presented many health challenges, and WCVM veterinarians coped with an increase in caesareans and complications caused by the cows' unfamiliar nutritional issues.

Those nutrition problems intrigued Smart who had worked on groundbreaking research with an OVC colleague involving a genetic metabolic abnormality in copper and zinc metabolism in Alaskan Malamute dogs.

So when Meg received a fellowship from the Medical Research Council in 1978, she took an educational leave and pursued a PhD degree focusing on animal nutrition through the University of Saskatchewan's College of Agriculture.

"Nobody told me that I should go the nutrition route or that I should get a PhD if I wanted to get promoted. It was just something that I wanted to do. My entire career was self-directed."

Smart's research results changed the recommended trace mineral requirements for western Canadian cattle and emphasized the impact of water quality on trace mineral availability.

When Smart completed her PhD program in 1984, she returned to the WCVM where her expertise in nutrition was invaluable to livestock producers. Her fourth-year dairy nutrition elective was popular, and she was responsible for developing a graduate course in animal science in ruminant nutrition and metabolism.

As Smart and her husband established their own flock of sheep and gained experience in sheep production, they befriended many of her clients. Smart wrote numerous lay articles and two books about sheep and goat production.

One of her books, The Goat Production Manual, is presented to African students who graduate from the goat management program organized by Veterinarians Without Borders/Vétérinaires sans frontières. It was also translated into Mandarin by the Chinese government.

After having a knee replacement in 1989, Smart went on half-time disability until 2004 when she returned full time in the WCVM's Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences – the department she had joined in 2000. She remained there until her retirement.

Today's academic environment would have accommodated such a disability in a faculty member with Smart's academic qualifications. However, Smart was undeterred, and in 1994 she developed the first small animal clinical nutrition elective for senior students in a North American veterinary college.

Smart has difficulty choosing one area of her career that has given her the greatest satisfaction. She definitely enjoyed the many friendships that she and Jim developed with clients.

"We became friends with them, and we worked with them," Smart recalls. "I learned so much from them – probably as much as they learned from me."

Smart's interaction with students was also fulfilling. She adopted the teaching philosophy of Dr. Milton Bell, who became her role model and mentor while she was completing her PhD degree. Smart followed Bell's lead by guiding and encouraging her students as they learned through self-discovery.

In addition, Smart enjoyed her involvement with campus organizations such as the U of S Faculty Association's executive and grievance committees and the University Employment Equity Committee. She was also co-chair of the Women's Studies Research Unit for 10 years.

Smart's nutritional research covered various topics and animals including horses, beef and dairy cattle, sheep, goats, cats and dogs. She shared her expertise through producer workshops, through presentations at numerous animal science, veterinary and lay conferences and through peer-reviewed scientific papers.

To encourage public access, Smart published her findings on Veterinary Information Network discussion papers and developed two blogs about goat and pet nutrition. She co-authored a book on pet nutrition. She and Jim also extensively revised the Animal Health Book for Cattle published by Alberta Agriculture.

"Having a big CV wasn't important to me. I just liked the challenge, and it was more important for me to enjoy what I was doing."

Smart still plans to do some consulting, and this winter, she and Jim took a Caribbean cruise where she presented on-board guest lectures about companion animal nutrition. The couple also looks forward to spending time with their sons Kerry and Ken and daughter Jennifer as well as their three grandchildren and nine great grandchildren.

Smart is proud that she and other female veterinarians paved the way for all the young women who are now part of the profession.

"It was an interesting time, and we fought all the way to get the things we needed. But I met a lot of wonderful people, and every facet of my career gave me meaning."
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