Professor Debby Reynolds

Doctor of Science

16 July 2008 – Orator: Professor Philip Duffus

Madam Chancellor, Debby Reynolds

Two dates to consider today, 1975 and 2008. Today, in 2008, we have, as was obvious to you a few moments ago, a veterinary school whose graduates are dominated, I hasten to add dominated in the nicest possible way, by the fairer sex. Our female undergraduates don’t just win all the prizes, but seem to organise everything as well, a view that probably will have some resonance amongst the few males lucky enough to be in their year. However, I really feel, male as I obviously am, that the increasing dominance of the female gender into the veterinary profession has been a wonderful occurrence, a breath of fresh air, an influx of a “let’s get on and just do it” philosophy.

Madam Chancellor, at the time of our earlier date of 1975, things were somewhat different, and Professor Debby Reynolds, whose career we celebrate today, graduated with honours into a male dominated profession.

Although the number graduating with Debby Reynolds at Bristol in 1975 was relatively small, there is a common theme to their collective memory of their five years together with her: this theme is the recognition of Debby as easily the academic star of their year. One contemporary recalls that when the results went up after their first examination in their first year, her name was at the top with a mark way above everybody else. This, Madam Chancellor, was in the days before political correctness in exams forced us to treat everyone anonymously as a number. The collective memory of her colleagues also recalls that notwithstanding her undoubted intellectual advantage – in fact one of her male colleagues admitted she was “just a little scary” – she would always take time out to explain aspects of their course which her fellow students did not fully understand, and her year certainly looked up to her. Not surprisingly, her teachers also noted her success and one of the most influential, Professor Charlie Grunsell, said “You, my young lady, are for research”

After qualifying in July 1975, Debby Reynolds spent a short while as a locum before remembering she was a farmer’s daughter, in fact the daughter of the farmer who introduced pure bred Charolais cattle to the UK and so she joined the Institute for Animal Health (IAH) in 1975. Here, she started work on a variety of disease-causing pathogens such as leptospira, rotavirus, calicivirus, coronavirus and transmissible gastro enteritis virus: names that will be unfamiliar to the majority of this audience but well-known, or at least Madam Chancellor I hope well-known, as they have just graduated, to the BVSc graduates in front of me. These pathogens, whilst not notifiable or infectious to man, and therefore of little interest to the media, are of vital importance to our farming industry. Debby Reynolds developed an interest in the immune response to these organisms and received her PhD in the subject from the University of Reading. As she continued at IAH one of the world leading microbiologists, Professor Walter Plowright, took her under his wing.

Perhaps feeling that she was becoming rather too focussed in her work, Debby moved in 1984 to a job with the Veterinary Investigation Laboratory at Reading (now called the VLA or Veterinary Laboratory Agency) where she could combine her scientific skills and knowledge with administrative responsibilities. These were exciting but rather worrying times for the veterinary profession as BSE, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, was found in 1986/7. The leadership skills of Debby Reynolds led her to be promoted in MAFF, now DEFRA, and move to their then headquarters at Tolworth in 1991. Whilst at Tolworth she led the group which developed the vaccine against salmonella that is now widely used in the poultry industry, and whose usage has led to a dramatic reduction of salmonella cases in humans following consumption of undercooked and infected eggs. Individuals of my generation in the hall will well remember a certain politician called Edwina Currie who famously proclaimed to the world that just about all eggs in the UK were infected with salmonella. This statement certainly did not help either the consumption of eggs or Mrs Currie’s subsequent career in politics, but it was then left to individuals such as Debby Reynolds to deal with the problem, by actually doing something both useful and important, a trait that I believe has been her mantra for many a year.

After further stints at the VLA and then back at Tolworth, Debby moved to Page Street in London, the new headquarters of DEFRA, where she worked on that most intractable of bovine diseases: tuberculosis, bovine TB. In February 2001 she moved to become Veterinary Director of the Food Standards Agency, the FSA, where she worked with Sir John Krebs, now Lord Krebs. I believe she admired Sir John for his inspirational style of running the FSA Board, where the meetings are held in open session and the public can come along and listen. The practice of such transparency has, I believe, influenced the leadership style of Debby Reynolds.

In March 2004 Debby Reynolds was appointed to the post of Chief Veterinary Officer, CVO, a role she held for four busy years before retiring in 2008.

The CVO (with the additional title of Director-General, Animal Health and Welfare) is the Government’s chief spokesperson on all animal health and welfare issues; he or she has responsibility for shaping UK animal health policy and influencing its delivery through the various Government executive agencies. The UK was lucky to have, in Debby, such a hardworking individual who, whilst always prepared to listen, would deliver a clear exposition of her views together with incisive decision making.

Madam Chancellor, to the majority of individuals in this hall today Debby Reynolds will be instantly recognisable as the public face in and on the media, dealing with crises such as the foot and mouth outbreak in 2007. The British have both a deep interest and commitment to the animals we share our island with, be they companion animals or those we rely on for our food and clothing. This fascination with animals is almost hard-wired into out national psyche, so problems such as foot and mouth, potential disasters such as an influenza epidemic in humans emanating from a genetically altered bird flu virus, the provocatively named Bluetongue virus, all are quickly, almost voraciously, picked up by the media; and guess whose office they run to. The calm, measured way in which Debby Reynolds dealt with these various crises, went a long way to reassure a public whose knowledge of the situations was often coloured by a disaster-orientated media.

2008 has become a busy year for Debby as she was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath in June and received a visiting Professorship at the Royal Veterinary College in London. In addition, she has become the first winner of the University of Reading’s Alumnus of the Year Award, rewarding the achievements of former Reading graduates. Moreover, since stepping down as CVO, Debby is still very much in demand both at home and overseas, working, for example, for her local Primary Care Trust and the national Health Protection Agency. There is one other talent however, that she might feel like pursuing with New Scotland Yard, and this came to light at a recent evening meeting in London where the guests were invited to participate in a series of tests to ascertain their career possibilities: apparently, Debby Reynolds, our ex-CVO, had a hidden talent for identifying counterfeit banknotes. 

Above all these current roles in her life, there is one role I have yet to mention that increasingly takes precedence above all others. Madam Chancellor, one might think that getting up before dawn in places as far apart as Venezuela and Kazakhstan, plodding through swamps and jungles, being bitten by leaches and mosquitoes, was not the type of activity during which one would encounter a retired UK CVO. A further clue is that I happen to know that her personal score for this pastime stands today at 3,755 with a target of about 9,800 to reach. Yes, Madam Chancellor, Debby is a dedicated twitcher or more accurately a world lister, determined to see, and then tick off, as many of the 9,800 species of birds in the world as she can. I dwell on this aspect of her life, as whilst others might find it a rather extreme pursuit, I for one can fully empathise with her. Sadly, my own world list only stands at just over 3,500.

Madam Chancellor, this occasion is an opportunity to honour the career of one of the country's leading veterinarians, whose career was forged in Bristol. I present to you Deborah Judith Reynolds as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.


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