Jennifer Farley talks about how pioneering vet Aleen Cust inspired her new picture book Wonder-Vet
by Jennifer Farley
The genesis of my children’s picture book about Aleen Cust, the first female veterinarian surgeon in Britain and Ireland in the early 20th century, is a story of slow discovery and inspiration.
I’m not quite sure when I first read about Aleen. Over a period of a couple of years, her name appeared in various articles in newspapers, magazines and books I read. I didn’t take a huge amount of notice initially but eventually after seeing her name several times, I became more curious and some thoughts began to formulate.
Aleen Cust’s determination and groundbreaking achievements in a male-dominated field fascinated me.
I started writing down some ideas for the book and sketching young Aleen in 2019. I love non-fiction picture books and biographies for kids, so I thought about how I might show her story to younger children, beginning with her life in rural Ireland.
Aleen Cust’s determination and groundbreaking achievements in a male-dominated field fascinated me. Her journey from Ireland to England and then Scotland becoming a trailblazing veterinarian was not only historically significant but also inspiring.
It’s hard to believe, but also NOT that hard to believe that in those days she was denied the chance to do her final examinations simply because she was a woman. Although she was one of the best in her class at university and had the necessary education to sit the exams, the council of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons in Edinburgh decided against it.
Interestingly, those in favour of admitting Aleen (and any future women) to the RCVS signed their names when voting on the matter, while those against this crazy idea remained anonymous.
Aleen Cust’s dedication to animal care and her pursuit of knowledge resonated deeply with me. I’ve always enjoyed stories of people pursuing their dreams regardless of societal expectations. Another part of Aleen’s life that I was particularly intrigued with was her time working with horses in France during World War 1.
my book about her is a small tribute to her pioneering spirit and a testament to the power of determination in the face of challenges
I had seen the play War Horse in London which I sobbed the whole way through—because of the story, the beautiful production featuring the horses as giant puppets, and because I am ridiculously sentimental about animals. I pretended to have a cold and the sniffles – this was pre-Covid, when you could do that in public places.
In 2018 I went on a trip to Flanders and the Somme with my husband. To my shame, I knew very little about WW1— but I learned a huge amount and was both horrified and deeply moved by the stories of what happened. Looking back now, a line of dots connected everything together for me.
There is so much more to Aleen’s life than I could put in a picture book. In the end, my book about her is a small tribute to her pioneering spirit and a testament to the power of determination in the face of challenges. It is my hope that young readers will also be interested and inspired by her story.