I never met Bob Michell. I never spoke to him and, as far as I’m aware, he never knew my name. I’m not a follower of veterinary politics, hence I was (and, for the most part, remain) unaware of his many achievements. Despite all this, he had a profound influence on my outlook and my veterinary career.

Here is the very short story of the day Bob Michell spoke to us…

Alpha and omega

The Wills Memorial Building
The Wills Memorial Building of the University of Bristol, by Robert Cutts. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Graduation day was bittersweet; the stress and worry of exams was over, but the stress and worry of being a vet was on the horizon. It was also, as far as I knew, the last time I would spend with all my friends together. Thank heavens there was champagne.

As we graduated with the dentists and medics, the morning was spent at the University of Bristol’s Wills Memorial Building.

Now, I’m the sort of person who likes to mythologise everything (my first completely used bottle of immersion oil during my current residency now sits in reverent pride of place in my bottom drawer), but I found it hard to impart any real sense of import into the bizarre ceremony of being briefly handed a plastic scroll, only to immediately hand it back again as I left the podium.

Not only that, but the speech at the ceremony – by a person, who now is an extremely senior member of the Conservative party, being given an honorary degree – was tedious, irrelevant, and (given the uncomfortable chairs) slightly annoying.

The final hurdle

Things brightened up considerably in the afternoon, largely because of the aforementioned champagne. We were out at the veterinary school in Langford and had shed most of the stuffy old ceremonies (along with the dentists and medics), so could get down to the real business of chatting in amazement that anyone would be so foolish as to allow such a group of know-nothing bozos loose on the veterinary world.

There was one final hurdle – another interminable speech by some irrelevant academic. This one was president of the RCVS, or the BSAVA, or some such – I wasn’t entirely sure, and I didn’t think it really mattered. Blah, blah, pass the champagne, and let’s get it over with.

This, however, was a very different speech.

Privilege

Bob Michell
The late, great Bob Michell was a former RCVS president who served on the BVA council for more than two decades.

The man who stood up to speak at my graduation ceremony had an air of kindliness that sounds twee until you have experienced something like it. He had a face and voice that made me feel everything was going to be all right from now on, an air of quiet authority and compassion that, within seconds, made me wish this person was in charge of everything in the whole world.

When he spoke, though, it wasn’t to reassure us that everything would be okay. No. He told us we were privileged. I didn’t understand what he meant at first, but he went on to explain we had been given a great gift – the knowledge of how to heal. The ability to relieve suffering.

In all my years at veterinary college – slogging through textbooks, blundering through practicals, joking my way through presentations and sweating my way through exams, I had never thought of it like that. With just a few sentences, Bob Michell reminded me this degree wasn’t about us, it was about the animals and the help we could offer them.

My gift, my curse

I’m aware this talk of gifts and privileges may sound silly, and possibly aggrandising, but if you’re thinking that, it’s because I don’t have Bob Michell’s gift with words and I certainly don’t have his aura of calm serenity.

But I can tell you the words Bob Michell spoke on the day of my graduation sent a tingle down my spine; he was my Uncle Ben, telling me “with great power comes great responsibility” (I told you I like to mythologise everything, didn’t I?).

It was a short speech, but then so was the Gettysburg Address. In the years to come, in my many low points, I would think of that speech, and remind myself why I had done this.

I never spoke to Bob Michell, but I wish I had, if only to say just one thing:

Thank you!

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Bin Johnston
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1 month 6 days ago

What a lovely tribute. This is the first time that I’ve heard this profoundly sad news. I had the pleasure of meeting Bob and completely agree with you about the impact of his presence and words. He was a remarkable ‘gentle’ man with eloquence and influence. Thank you for passing on our loss and for giving me the opportunity to thank him too.

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