Professor Sidney Ricketts

Doctor of Science Professor Sidney Ricketts

Thursday 19 July 2012 at 11.15 am - Orator: Professor J..S. Price

Madam Chancellor,

Sidney Ricketts represents everything that a modern veterinarian, indeed any professional graduate, should aspire to. He is blessed with one of the defining characteristics of successful people, and in particular all successful clinicians: an enquiring mind. Like Rudyard Kipling’s The Elephant’s Child, he has filled his life with ‘satiable curiosities’. When confronted with a clinical problem he will not just ask himself the question ‘How do I treat it’ but also ‘Why does it appear as it does?’ ‘Why is what I propose to do the best way forward? How does this case fit with the other hundreds I have seen?’ and ‘In what article sharing my experience with others will it be best placed?’

It is this propensity for asking questions rather than trotting out pre-prepared answers that distinguishes the scientist, or the scientific clinician, from the technician, or the technician clinician. In the veterinary schools we like to think that we exemplify this characteristic, and certainly those in academia that follow this path deserve every accolade available for us to bestow. However, Sidney’s life has not been spent in academia but in veterinary practice, where the facilities necessary to assuage his professional curiosity are not part of the furniture provided by the institution, but have to be purchased and run out of profits. Sidney has not only provided a personal service to his clients and their animals and been a pioneer in the field of equine stud medicine, but has also helped to make the equine veterinary practice where he has worked all his life, Rossdale and Partners, one of the most enlightened, enquiring and professional practices in the world. He has also established an equine pathology laboratory of world renown that any veterinary school would be proud of and few are willing to provide.

As is usually the case, be it in banks, businesses or universities, the features of what people do are established by their values rather than their competencies. Sidney is a bit of a dinosaur in this regard. Far from slick, his whole attitude exudes personal integrity and a commitment to hard work that he expects to find in all those with whom he works, though I suspect he is sometimes disappointed. He has an eye for detail, sets high standards for himself and expects the same from others. I can’t imagine that he has ever said ‘that will be good enough’. Sidney’s values have deep roots. None of his family had been to university, and his parents, who recognised the importance of hard work and of gaining a first class education, encouraged their only son to grasp every opportunity that the meritocratic education system of the 60s and 70s could offer him.

He attended Collyer’s School, a direct grant school in Horsham, Sussex, which epitomised the values of the grammar school generation, so many of whom went on to shape the face of Britain today. Sidney’s father, also called Sidney, is with us today to help celebrate his son’s illustrious career. If we were in America we would be making clear that it was Sidney II who was being directly honoured today but clearly Sidney I has played an important supporting role! Sidney’s decision to become a vet, did not come from a ’Eureka!’ moment, but evolved from an interest in animals that led him to spend time as a young boy with local vets and on farms. However, both his grandfathers worked in agriculture perhaps suggesting a genetic, or an epigenetic, predisposition for his choice of profession.

Fortunately for Bristol, Sidney joined the University’s veterinary school in 1965, securing one of the 33 places available. His A level grades appear much lower than those required today, but now is not the time to debate grade inflation or relative academic ability through the generations! The veterinary school during the 1960s had not yet been fixated on the number of cases passing through its doors, specialised professional qualifications had not then been introduced and the era of the extensive, and expensive diagnostic test had not yet arrived. The attributes that were best appreciated were those of observation, enquiry and deduction to form a diagnosis, followed by resolution and confident implementation of treatment.

Sidney Ricketts was inspired by academic role models with these attributes, Harold Pearson, John David, Jim Pinsent, Barbara Weaver and Charles Grunsell in particular. Before being exposed to these luminaries in the clinical departments he had taken advantage of the opportunity of an intercalated year in the Biochemistry department populated then, as it is today, by pioneers in their field. The double helix structure of DNA had only been discovered in the previous decade and its potential captivated the imagination of a young enquiring mind. Four decades later DNA testing is routine in Rossdale’s pathology laboratories with PCR-based techniques revolutionising the rapid diagnosis of equine viral and bacterial pathogens. Every year the new cohort of vet students question us as to why they need to learn biochemistry; the career we are honouring today provides them with the answer!

Another inspirational mentor was Dai Williams, Sidney’s ‘foster vet’ for ‘seeing practice’. Although he originally aspired to be a farm vet, Sidney’s head was turned by equine stud medicine while visiting stud farms with Dai who, recognising cheap intelligent labour when he saw it, encouraged Sidney to set up a clinical pathology laboratory in his Salisbury practice. It is difficult to imagine a veterinary student being given such autonomy these days; Health and Safety would not permit it and student confidence would probably not enable it! Dai Williams also changed Sidney’s life by suggesting that he see practice with Peter Rossdale and Michael Hunt who, Dai predicted, would change the face of thoroughbred stud medicine. Sidney duly went to see practice with them in Newmarket and thought he had ‘died and gone to heaven’. Like Dai Williams, Peter Rossdale immediately recognised Sidney’s potential and two years later offered him a job. If academia had ever hoped to enclose Sidney Ricketts to its bosom it was at this point that it lost the battle. He jumped at the chance of joining Rossdale and partners, turning down the offer of a PhD at Bristol.

Should anyone imagine that this meant that Sidney was lost to science they would be wrong. The enlightened environment at Rossdale and Partners, an example to any clinical operation within or without the University sector, was exactly conducive in fostering those positive aspects of Sidney’s character to which I have referred. Here Sidney established himself as a specialist in equine reproduction and equine pathology without equal and started to gain the universal professional respect he now enjoys.

Fortunately, despite setting down new roots in the chilly flat lands of Suffolk, Sidney kept his connections with the South West. In his final year at Bristol he had asked an attractive and efficient secretary within the Langford Medicine Department to help him prepare his application for an internship at the University of Pennsylvania. This is perhaps not the appropriate forum to comment on the level of administrative support then available within University departments that allowed such an arrangement to take place. However, the seeds of romance were sown over the production of his application and Jenny and he married a year after he returned from the USA. Jenny’s family farm is in Yatton and so, although the University lost again, the umbilical cord linking Sidney to Bristol remained intact. Jenny’s background and interest in all things veterinary have enabled her to play an important part in Sidney’s professional life and be the rock on which he has relied. They have three sons Jeremy, Stephen and Philip, all of whom are here today to witness us celebrate their father’s achievements.

These achievements should be an inspiration to all of those graduating today. They include the publication of over 100 scientific reviews and papers (I am proud to say that I am a co-author on one of them) and, with Peter Rossdale, Sidney has co-edited one of the most influential veterinary text books of all time Equine Stud Farm Medicine, a bible for equine stud vets. He has served as a consultant for many prestigious institutions and has sat on numerous editorial and advisory boards. In doing so he has had an enormous influence in shaping policy that has improved equine health and welfare.

For several years he has both inspired and exhausted Bristol veterinary students, including those graduating today, with his teaching on equine reproduction. A measure of a successful career is how well someone mentors and supports others. Sidney has shared his encyclopaedic knowledge and wealth of experience with colleagues and students from all over the world and has helped shape the careers of many leading lights of the veterinary profession.

He has achieved all this on top of a gruelling ‘day job’ which during the stud season involves working 7 days a week and being on call 24 hours a day (recent graduates take note: there are no 1:4 rotas at Rossdales). The coalface at which Sidney has spent tens of thousands of hours has been the dangerous end of thoroughbred mares and stallions and he has helped bring about the conception and delivery of some of the most famous racehorses in the world. At the same time he established and managed the busy Pathology Laboratory, gained mastery of the business side of the practice and played a key role in designing its state of the art new hospital. The University’s new Alborada Building at Langford, opened earlier this year, was based upon Sidney’s design and it would be appropriate to thank him now for his unstinting support for Bristol Veterinary School.

Sidney’s worth has rightfully been recognised with numerous awards and honours; he is a Fellow

of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and the Royal College of Pathologists, a Foundation RCVS Diplomate and recognised specialist in equine stud medicine and a de-facto Diplomate of the European College of Equine Internal Medicine. This University made him a visiting professor in 2001 and The Royal Veterinary College has followed in our footsteps. In 1998 he was made Lieutenant of the Royal Victorian Order by the Queen for services to the Royal Studs.

When I asked Sidney how he would like to be remembered, he characteristically avoided the witty response with which many of us would have used to get a quick laugh and hide our embarrassment. Instead he answered directly and truthfully, that it was as a dedicated veterinary surgeon who cared for his patients, their owners and his colleagues at Rossdales and Partners. It is an apt description of him and a worthy aspiration for all of us still practising the art and science of veterinary medicine.

Madam-Chancellor, this occasion is an opportunity to honour the career of one of the country's leading veterinary practitioner scientists, whose career was launched here in Bristol. Therefore, I present to you Sidney William Ricketts as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.


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