Today, most vets are female. But when Dr Helen Jones began work five decades ago, the profession was dominated by men. That didn’t stop her from embarking on a varied and accomplished career—for which she was honoured in this year’s Queen’s Birthday list, writes Angela Tufvesson.
Juggling work with child rearing is standard practice for many female vets—who comprise more than 60 per cent of practitioners in Australia—whether they’re new graduates, experienced physicians or have enjoyed such successful careers that they’re recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.
Dr Helen Jones, the first female president of the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) who in June was appointed a Member (AM) in the General Division of the Order of Australia for significant service to veterinary science and animal welfare, raised two boys while managing a career spanning almost five decades as a clinician, academic and educator.
She attributes her success to determination, drive and a supportive husband. “You just have to push yourself but you do need support, and supportive partners are a help,” she says. “My husband has been so supportive throughout our marriage.”
After making a last-minute decision to ditch maths and physics for a veterinary science degree, Dr Jones began her studies at the University of Melbourne in 1963. There were 44 male students and six female students in her first year.
By the time she graduated in 1968, Dr Jones had married fellow veterinary student Dr Ian Fairnie and the pair began separate careers that would become frequently entwined. While on holiday from their respective internships, Drs Jones and Fairnie took on a three-week summer locum position in Horsham in western Victoria.
“We got practice at treating all sorts of things,” says Dr Jones. “Ian did all the large animal work and inspected animals at the local abattoir pre and post slaughter, while I did the small animals. We learnt a lot in those few weeks.”
After scouting around for suitable locations in Western Australia to set up a practice, the couple headed west in 1969 and Dr Fairnie accepted a job at what was then called Muresk Agricultural College. Dr Jones gave birth to their first child, Callum, and three months later started a practice in Northam, about 90 minutes’ drive west of Perth.
“I was bored after the baby was born—that’s one of the reasons I started the practice,” says Dr Jones. “It was well set-up—we had the sheep yards out the back set up like a little house, so he could run around and play and do his own thing. If I was busy or Callum needed attention while I had a client, the electricians [who shared the back space] helped out.”
It was when her second child, Michael, was born that juggling work and family no longer fit and Dr Jones was forced to quit the practice. “I returned to my vet practice after Michael was born, tried to bring him to the vet practice as I had with Callum. But Michael screamed the whole time. He just didn’t like to be put down, which is a problem for a vet. He wanted to be held and I couldn’t get a babysitter—he was screaming all the time. I had to quit the practice as I just could not cope. He was too difficult and no-one would babysit him.”
“I’m still a vet, I’ve just taken a different channel. I’m interested in epidemiology and public health, and I’ve always been involved in those areas.”
Dr Jones’ career didn’t stall at this point—in fact, quite the opposite occurred. She was “mentally and physically exhausted” and felt “terribly lonely because I had no friends”, so her husband suggested getting involved with the local veterinary community.
“[I drove] 100km to the veterinary practitioners meeting one Wednesday evening,” says Dr Jones. “It was their annual meeting and I was the only female among over 20 male vets. They were most welcoming and nominated me as secretary. I was so insecure I said ‘yes’ and drove back home to Muresk.
“[The] next morning I told Ian I was calling to say I couldn’t do it. My excuses were many. Ian bullied me into staying secretary, saying he would look after the boys while I went to the monthly meetings. I found I enjoyed it and after a year became the president.”
From there, Dr Jones went on to become secretary and president of the AVA WA Division before being appointed as the first female president of the AVA in 1982, paving the way for other female vets to seek leadership positions. “Mary Barton was my secretary and she later became the second female national president in 1988,” says Dr Jones.
In 1983, the AVA made a bid for the World Veterinary Congress in Perth, with Dr Jones appointed vice chair and Dr Fairnie as chair. “We ran it at the now demolished Perth Entertainment Centre in Wellington Street,” says Dr Jones. “We had six simultaneous sessions all with six languages. We paid about $150,000 to bring in translators from Sydney.
“We had 1,500 delegates and 750 accompanying persons and I guess I knew about 1,000 of them. There were many great vets we met. In promoting the Congress, I got to travel to Canada, the US, Mexico and New Zealand. It was just a load of fun. But I was still working full time! We just used to find people to look after the children.”
Dr Jones also completed a Master of Philosophy and worked as a lecturer in medical technology and later a senior lecturer in community health at the Western Australian Institute of Technology (now Curtin University).
She says a broad interest in science and health, as well as a significant amount of work with international students, aids her contribution to the veterinary profession. “I’m still a vet, I’ve just taken a different channel,” says Dr Jones. “I’m interested in epidemiology and public health, and I’ve always been involved in those areas.”
Indeed, Dr Jones’ varied experience sparked an interest in the bond between humans and animals, and her research identified the benefits of dogs on nursing home staff and residents.
“At the time it was illegal to have pets in nursing homes,” she says. “However, we were able to place resident pets in acute hospitals because no-one had ever thought pets would go there. Over the next few years we placed at least 20 residential dogs in nursing homes. We also fostered visiting pet programs in nursing homes and hospitals.”
“I’m impressed because in the old days, women didn’t go much into large animals but they are now working with large animals. I’m pleased there’s been a change in that respect.”
This research led to a position as an associate of the Center to Study Human Animal Relationships and Environments at the University of Minnesota, and Dr Jones also taught a unit on companion animals at Curtin University.
In 2005, when her children were well and truly grown, Dr Jones completed a doctorate examining the high incidence of suicide among Australian vets. Her research led to the opening of the AVA Wellness Centre at the annual conference from 2009 until 2015, which provided advice to vets on physical and mental health and wellbeing.
“I’d done some research and I had a lot of data so I decided I’d do a PhD,” says Dr Jones. “I interviewed 45 vets and during that time I found that a lot of them were stressed, depressed and some of them were suicidal. I wondered if it was a bigger problem than we thought and the lab research showed that the suicide rate in vets in Australia was four times the national average.
“My concern was sorting out the high number of suicides in vets. I think we’ve made an impact in WA. The key is getting people to talk about it. We think getting people to acknowledge that they’ve had suicidal thoughts and encouraging people to ask others if they’re okay is the key.”
Dr Jones officially retired in 2010 but continues to be involved in the profession. She’s writing a book profiling prominent female Australian vets, and she’s also involved with the SAVE African Rhino Foundation and Rotary.
Reflecting on her long career as a female vet in what for many years was a male-dominated industry, Dr Jones says she was never “discriminated against by any vet, male or female” and that her male colleagues were always very accepting of her.
And her advice to the growing contingent of female vets who now outnumber their male counterparts? Demand a competitive salary.
“I’m impressed because in the old days, women didn’t go much into large animals but they are now working with large animals,” says Dr Jones. “I’m pleased there’s been a change in that respect but having so many women in the industry has depressed the salaries.
“A lot of women go into vet science because they love animals and they don’t care about the money. That’s probably depressed the salaries that vets can get—indeed, vets get paid less than other similar professions. Part of that is an attitude that female vets love animals so much that they’re prepared to sacrifice the salary. It’s important that they ask for more money.”