Obituary: John Wood, a respected vet who treated everything from elephants to hunting horses
PUBLISHED: 06:00 11 March 2017
A country vet in the heart of Norfolk, John Wood, who has died aged 95, built up a widely-respected practice over almost half a century.
He cared for animals from bison and wolves to cattle and sheep and spent his wartime Army career in the Far East working with elephants, buffalo and camels.
Born in Shanghai, China, on October 21, 1921, John Gerard Prescott Wood went to St Peter’s, Seaford, and Cheltenham College. His father managed the British Shanghai Water Company, which had been started by his engineer grandfather.
Home leave, once every four years, involved a six-week steamer voyage via the Suez Canal. But civil war in China in 1929 resulted in his mother, Janet, taking son and younger daughter, Adele Katherine (Tinka) back to Britain .
They were raised in Surrey by a grandmother while his mother returned to China. The rural life including a menagerie with pet monkey, left a lasting impression on the growing boy. He rode to hounds on the farm horse with the Surrey Union – even wearing a cloth cap. . . . but then his uncle was the Master.
They returned to China but left in 1935 – steaming across the Pacific to Vancouver, by train across Canada, and by ship to England. But they were not to see their father for 12 years after he had been interned in 1937 by the invading Japanese Army.
Never a great scholar, he wanted to become a vet and studied at London Veterinary School. At the outbreak of war in 1939, he volunteered for the Army but was rejected because of poor eyesight.
In 1944, newly-qualified, he joined the Royal Army Veterinary Corps sailing East again and served in India, Burma, Thailand and Malaya. This involved caring for camels, elephants, buffalo, mules, horses and ponies and he later wrote about shoeing and saddling these various beasts of burden.
Demobilised in 1946, he returned to Kent and Sussex as an assistant vet and was reunited with his father in 1947. There he met Heather, who shared his passion for horses, hunting and whippets.
After marriage in 1950, they moved to Norfolk and bought a practice at Reepham. Over the years, working long hours and weekends, they built it up. When called out of hours, he even operated in “black tie” en route to a dance as his wife assisted, also in her glad rags.
When clients overlooked or were unable to pay their account, he once accepted a wolfhound puppy in settlement. Baloo, as she was known, became a regular fixture, howling from the front seat of his Land Rover as he drove to attend cows, sheep, pigs, horses, peacocks or even goldfish.
As a traditional country vet in the days before antibiotics, he often made his own treatments and again his wife’s help was invaluable – as telephonist, secretary and even anaesthetist.
But Saturdays were always special, in the hunting season. He treated the North Norfolk Harriers, the West Norfolk Foxhounds and never charged the Norfolk Beagles and was also Fakenham racecourse’s official vet for many years. Fortunately, his partner, Bill Warren, understood.
He loved a challenge – even a rook with a broken leg became a family fixture. Living in a dog kennel, it thrived – relishing stewing steak – often calling a parliament of rooks into the trees around Moorcroft, on the edge of the town. He made and glued wooden clogs for lame dairy cows and hand-fed his daughter’s tortoise for some 40 years with buttercups, lettuce, tomatoes and strawberries.
When Philip Wayre started the Norfolk Wildlife Park at Witchingham, it provided more challenges. Darting bison and wolves, netting otters or treating a sun bear was routine alongside more traditional vet work.
When he sold the practice, he had many hobbies in his retirement including photography. This had started when he took and developed his X-rays. A contributor to the Veterinary History Society, he had a reader’s ticket at the British Library.
An active member of the British Legion’s Reepham branch, he was welfare officer and always attended Remembrance Sunday’s church parade.
A town councillor for many years, he served on Broadland Council for Whitwell on the planning committee. But then local affairs did not always sit easily with the uncertain hours of an on-call veterinary surgeon.
He leaves a widow, Heather, three children, Bridget, Henry and Jane and five grandchildren.
Mr Wood’s funeral has taken place.