Apart from overcoming barriers of tradition and sexism to go down in history as Britain's first woman veterinarian, Dr. Aleen Cust was, by all accounts, a remarkable woman.
Born in 1868 in Ireland, Dr. Cust was an independent soul, driven and career-oriented at a time during the late 19th century and early 20th centuries when British convention considered such qualities to be out of place in a respectable woman.
In 1894 at the age of 26, Dr. Cust enrolled in the New Veterinary College, Edinburgh, as A.I. Custance to spare her family embarrassment. How exactly Dr. Cust gained admission to the institution is a mystery. It is thought she convinced the dean of her scholastic talents, which proved true.
When she was to sit for the first of her professional examinations in 1897, the Council of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons declined Dr. Cust's application. As the governing body for the RCVS, the council defined the word "student" as "male student";therefore, the council ruled, the RCVS lacked authority to admit a woman to the examination.
Following her graduation in 1900, Dr. Cust returned to her native Ireland. Although unable to call herself a veterinarian, she worked as an assistant to a veterinarian and was later named veterinary inspector to the Galway County Council. The appointment put Dr. Cust at odds once again with the RCVS, and the council would eventually rename the position "inspector" to end the controversy.
Two years later, Dr. Cust was appointed to an army bacteriology laboratory associated with one of the veterinary hospitals. War office records show she was part of the Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps.
It was Parliament, however, that cleared the final hurdle to Dr. Cust realizing her dream with passage of the Sex Disqualification Act of 1919. Under the new law, women could no longer be barred from any profession.
When Dr. Cust petitioned to take the examination in October 1922, the RCVS Council accepted her application. On December 21, 1922, Dr Cust received her diploma 22 years after she completed her veterinary education. Near the end of her life, she would write: "I have had the inestimable privilege of attaining my life's ambition."
Dr. Cust died at the age of 68. She was treating an injured dog while visiting friends in Jamaica when she collapsed and suddenly died. An obituary published in the Veterinary Record reported her passing "will be specifically mourned by the women who, already numbering sixty, have taken the road thus courageously opened up for them.