Arnold Theiler, the father of veterinary science in South Africa, was born in the village of Frick, Canton Argau, Switzerland on 26 March 1867. He underwent his higher education, and later qualified as a veterinarian in Zurich. At this point in the history of South Africa his profession was not really known and any facilities for research or investigation non-existent. In 1891 Theiler packed his bags, few books, microscope and surgical instruments and left by boat for the Cape. From there he travelled by train and mail coach to Pretoria where he took up his first job as a farm hand at Irene Estates.
It was on the farm that he lost his left hand in a chaff cutter. At the end of 1891 he started practicing as a vet in Pretoria. He offered to prepare a vaccine to combat an outbreak of smallpox among mine workers on the Witwatersrand in 1893 thereby establishing his reputation. This success led to his appointment by President Paul Kruger as state veterinarian for the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republic (Transvaal) in 1896, and he was officially sworn in on 11 May 1896. Coupled to his success were his boundless determination, energy and exactness, which were soon to earn him worldwide respect for his knowledge and professional service.
During these years (1896) the dreaded disease rinderpest terribly minimised the cattle population. In a teamwork effort he succeeded in developing a vaccine by means of which the disease was eliminate in 1897. He was an outstanding researcher, administrator and teacher, and he made a lasting contribution to various disciplines both in South Africa and internationally.
Theiler submitted a proposal for the establishment of a research institute under a state veterinarian at which the production of vaccines against rinderpest, smallpox, pleuropneumonia, and black-quarter, could be carried out. He further recommended that the disinfection station and stables, which were situated at Daspoort on the outskirts of Pretoria, could be changed into suitable quarters. According to his proposal for the research into the animal diseases and the production of remedies, the state veterinarian should also act as adviser to the government. With reference to all matters concerning animal diseases and hygiene, the laboratory should also be open as a centre of consultation for the public.
The submission was approved In March 1898, and he was appointed as the Director of the Bacteriological Institute and later staatsveearts (State Veterinarian) to the artillery of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republic (ZAR). He served as official veterinarian of the Boer forces during the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902.
After the war Theiler returned to Daspoort where much work was done on diseases such as East Coast Fever, many tick transmitted diseases such as redwater, heartwater, biliary fever and other diseases from the north such as the dreaded nagana (sleeping sickness), malaria and many more. Arnold Theiler became the first Director of Onderstepoort, where the main building was completed in 1908. Under his leadership and as a result of his hard work, many local diseases were researched and vaccines were produced. Some of it was exported to the rest of Africa well into the 21st century.
Beginnings of Onderstepoort
In 1920 The Faculty of Veterinary Science was established, thus enabling veterinarians to be trained locally. Before the establishment of Onderstepoort South Africans who wished to qualify as vets had to go abroad for their training. Theiler was the first dean of the faculty.
Theiler and his wife Emma had two sons and two daughters. Hans a veterinarian, and Max a scientist who became South Africa’s first Nobel laureate in 1951 in Physiology and Medicine, Margaret a teacher, and Gertrude a scientist. Both Gertrude and Max worked at Onderstepoort with their father.
The Big Five Veterinary & Pharmaceutical is a distributing company of Veterinary medicines. It is based on the premises of Onderstepoort and situated in the historic hospital where Sir Arnold Theiler started his research on African horse sickness.
Sir Arnold Theiler retired in 1927 and died in 24 July 1936. A statue of Theiler, by the distinguished sculptor Coert Steynberg, was erected in front of the Old Main Building at Onderstepport in 1939. The ashes of Sir Arnold Theiler and his wife Lady Emma are stored in the base of the statue.