Abigail Woods

Professor, History of Human and Animal Health, Kings College, London

Lessons from history help control disease in farm animals

In 2001, as a PhD student researching the history of Foot and Mouth disease, Abigail Woods found herself in the media spotlight during a serious outbreak of the disease, the first in Britain for over 30 years, when millions of farm animals were slaughtered and buried or burnt in the fields.

In 2007 her research into the history of livestock disease prevention for the cross-research council funded Rural Economy and Land Use Programme (RELU) impacted on policy makers when she work-shadowed the Deputy Chief Veterinary Officer at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and identified a historical precedent for another disease in sheep and cattle, Blue Tongue virus.

Woods is now Professor in the History of Human and Animal Health at King's College London and the principal investigator for ‘One Medicine’, a project funded by the Wellcome Trust, which is exploring links between human and animal diseases, 1850-2015.

This case study shows that it can take many years to achieve any significant impact on public policy. It demonstrates the importance of networking, building trust and reputation, and shows the need for institutions to provide incentives and support for impact-generating activities.

‘After the article appeared the phone did not stop ringing'

Abigail Woods trained and spent two years working as a vet before studying for a Masters’ degree in the history of science, technology and medicine at Manchester University, after which she successfully applied for a PhD project funded by the Wellcome Trust on the history of Foot and Mouth Disease, a rarely fatal but highly contagious disease which affects cattle and other farm animals (see Box 1).

In 2001, in the second year of her PhD, a serious outbreak of the disease attracted massive media coverage. The policy of slaughtering all cows, sheep and pigs on infected and surrounding farms appeared unable to control the spread of the disease, and severe restrictions were imposed on the movement of farm animals.

Based on her research into previous Foot and Mouth outbreaks in Britain, Woods observed that 21st century government policy closely resembled that introduced in the late 19th century, when the state first assumed responsibility for controlling the disease.

Encouraged by her PhD supervisor, Professor John Pickstone, who had contacts at the newspaper, she wrote an article for the Guardian, ‘Kill or Cure’, which documented the history of this policy and pointed out that the context of foot and mouth was very different in 2001 from the late nineteenth century. Changes in livestock production and research into vaccination meant that alternative control measures should not be rejected out of hand.

Although she had not yet completed her PhD, Woods’ research was reported in the national press and received widespread media coverage. She was interviewed by numerous local, national and international TV and radio stations, including BBC Manchester, which was close to where she lived, and Radio 4’s Today programme. Her findings were embraced by journalists, farmers and others who opposed the slaughter policy and incorporated into a wider critique, but this obtained little traction within government.

When the outbreak was over, she submitted evidence, on her own initiative, to the Royal Society Inquiry into Infectious Diseases in Livestock. In the foreword to the report of the Foot and Mouth Disease 2001: Lessons Learned Inquiry, the chair Dr Iain Anderson wrote that: ‘We seemed destined to repeat the mistakes of history.’

Despite widespread media coverage of her research, Woods felt that in the short term, her junior status, lack of personal connections with policy makers, institutional resistance to policy change, and pressure from the National Farmers Union to maintain the slaughter policy (and enable international trade to resume more quickly), mitigated against her voice being heard, and taken seriously.

'If policy makers find the historical message unpalatable for political reasons, historians may struggle to have any impact on policy outcomes.'

In the longer term, however, Woods feels that her historically-grounded critique of the slaughter policy may have contributed to a wider rethinking of government roles and responsibilities in relation to infectious livestock disease control. This led to the inclusion of vaccination in contingency plans for future foot and mouth epidemics, and to official acknowledgement that disease control methods should not be based on science and economics alone, but also take account of the ‘human element.’

Working as a trusted adviser

In 2007 Woods was awarded an early career research fellowship with the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme (RELU), which was funded by three research councils, together with the UK and Scottish governments. RELU had been established in 2004, partly in response to the foot and mouth epidemic, as an interdisciplinary research programme aimed at informing government policy through the integration of scientific and social scientific perspectives.

Woods was the only historian to win RELU funding. Her project explored the history of livestock disease prevention on British farms from 1942 onwards, and to use the findings to reflect on Defra’s attempts to encourage a more preventive approach to livestock health, known as ‘Farm Health Planning’.

RELU encouraged academics to work closely with stakeholders, such as farmers, vets, animal charities and government officials; and helped academics promote their research through special issues of journals, press releases and workshops.

Woods was invited to present her findings to the Farm Health Planning team at Defra, and consulted by the author of a report on the future role of the veterinary profession in food production. She also gave presentations to veterinary schools and societies, including the Royal Veterinary College, London.

RELU encouraged academics to learn more about stakeholder needs through a work shadowing scheme. Woods shadowed Alick Simmons, the Deputy Chief Veterinary Officer at Defra for two weeks. He suggested she write a report, and ran through the department’s current issues, one of which was to encourage uptake amongst cattle and sheep farmers of a vaccine against Blue Tongue virus, a midge-borne disease of sheep and cattle which was common in Mediterranean countries, and had started spreading to northern Europe including Britain (see Box 2).

Whereas her work on Foot and Mouth compared the historical and current treatment of the same disease, the historical analogy Woods identified in the case of Blue Tongue virus was government's efforts to encourage vaccination against a different disease, Fowl Pest (also known as Newcastle Disease), in the 1960s and 1970s. She discovered that farmers were reluctant to follow official guidance for various reasons, including logistical issues, their experience of previous outbreaks, attitudes to government and factory farming, and the costs of vaccination. In her report she wrote:

'Many of the factors that influenced ND vaccination behaviours during the 1960s can be detected in sheep and cattle farmers’ responses to BTV vaccination today.'

Woods used her historical knowledge to demonstrate that many of the farmers who did not vaccinate were acting perfectly rationally, basing their decision on the perceived risk of infection to themselves, and the cost of vaccination compared to the cost of the disease. Farmers were also influenced by social and cultural factors, such as who they thought was to blame for the disease, whether they were small or large producers, and their willingness to take risks.

Simmons encouraged Woods to publish her report in the Government Veterinary Journal. He commented:

'What is most telling and slightly disturbing is the uncanny resemblance of the 1960/70s Newcastle disease vaccination effort to the position we find ourselves in today with Blue Tongue virus.'

‘If you are known and trusted they will listen to you’

Woods’s current project at King’s College London, funded by the Wellcome Trust, aims to investigate historical precedents to a present-day scientific agenda known as ‘One Health’. One Health recognizes that many of the key current threats to health - such as infectious disease, antibiotic resistance, climate change and food insecurity - cut across the human-animal divide and therefore require a multidisciplinary approach, which can be challenging because of professional, institutional and disciplinary silos.

Through revealing the connected histories of human and animal health, Woods’ research demonstrates the many precedents to One Health.

'The project’s findings can help One Health advocates to operationalize the concept, by illuminating the circumstances that enabled past experts to co-operate in the investigation and management of human and animal disease'

Woods has always been motivated by the desire to ‘not only to make an impact on history but on the world.’ Through developing new understandings of the past, she believes it is possible to inform perspectives on the present and future. She acknowledges that this approach is not typical for many mainstream historians.

'Many historians of science, technology and medicine are generally more engaged with how the past has impacted on the present, and see their roles as not simply writing books and articles, but also speaking to wide audiences, forging connections and communities, and building the next generation of historians.'    

Woods acknowledges that having trained and worked as a vet helps her build her links with the veterinary profession, but at the same time she has worked tirelessly to develop, maintain and extend those links.

'People who know me are willing to vouch for me to others in the profession. If you are a person who is known and trusted then they will listen to you. You can’t quantify this.'

She finds that ‘everyone likes history’ and she welcomes the opportunity to talk to vets and other stakeholders about her research. These conversations feed into, and benefit her research. She has taken advantage of opportunities, such as visiting South Korea following a Foot and Mouth epidemic there, and appearing on BBC TV’s War time farm as the ‘lady vet’.

This public engagement work has contributed to her academic career, enabling her to secure a permanent academic position in 2005, and gain research funding.

'If you are constantly trying to articulate why what you do matters, in a way that a general audience can understand, then you are very well equipped to pitch a proposal for research.'

In a climate where universities are increasingly required to demonstrate the wider impact of their academics’ research, Woods’ employers have acknowledged the value of her activities. In 2015, she was appointed Professor in the History of Human and Animal Health at King’s College London. She says:

'I now see my role as helping junior people to develop their networks, disseminate their findings, and make a difference, in the same way as my supervisors and project leaders helped me.'


Trust and reputation take many years to build, but are essential for effective networking, engagement with policy makers and to shape policy. Woods believes that, where relevant to their expertise, historians should:

  • Make policy engagement an integral part of planning future research activities
  • Exploit every opportunity to network and build personal contacts with policy makers and others outside academia
  • Recognise that impact on policy is a ‘long-term game’ and not expect instant results.
  • Monitor and keep up-to-date with current issues and events.
  • Acquire evidence of impact on policy in any form possible.
  • Receive support and encouragement - from research supervisors, project leaders, programme directors, funders and stakeholders - for all forms of policy engagement.
  • Help the next generation of researchers interact with policy makers and develop their own network of contacts and achieve research impact.
  • Win recognition for their activities in university decisions about hiring and promotion.

Box 1: Foot and Mouth Disease

The first outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease was recorded in Britain in 1839. A policy of ‘stamping out’ the disease was introduced in the late nineteenth century, but this did not prevent two serious epidemics in 1922 and 1924, when 250,000 animals were slaughtered. Another epidemic occurred in 1967-68, when more than 2,300 farms were affected and 400,000 animals were slaughtered to prevent the disease spreading. In the 2001 epidemic, millions of cows and sheep were killed and burnt in the fields and severe restrictions imposed on the movement of farm animals. By the time the outbreak was finally brought under control, the total cost was estimated to have been over £8 billion.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) promoted slaughter for economic reasons including an emphasis on intensive farming methods, reciprocal bans on the export of live animals and meat from countries with the disease, and because milk and meat yields were lower from infected animals after they had recovered. Although protective vaccination became increasingly popular within Europe as a control measure during the twentieth century, from the 1950s Britain promoted its policy abroad and from 1989 other countries in Europe adopted the slaughter policy.

The intense difficulties experienced by MAFF during the 2001 Foot and Mouth epidemic, and public criticism of the failure to control the disease led, in June 2001, to the creation of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Defra was formed by merging MAFF with part of the former Department of Environment and Transport.

Box 2: Blue Tongue Virus

Blue Tongue Virus is a midge-borne disease that affects sheep, cattle and other animals such as goats and camels. It is common in many parts of the world, but in 2006-7 had started to spread from Mediterranean countries to northern Europe, probably due to climate change. The disease affects productivity and can kill infected animals. Symptoms vary, depending on the strain of the disease. In some outbreaks significant numbers of animals die or take many months to recover. In other cases infected animals show no symptoms, which makes the disease difficult to detect and control.

To control the disease in Britain, Defra promoted voluntary vaccination, at the farmers’ expense. The Department expected that farmers would vaccinate and make the ‘right’ decision for themselves and the nation, because it was in their interests to do so. However, in some parts of the country, vaccination levels were 55%, well below the 80% coverage needed for effective control of the disease nationally. Farmers were not convinced that the cost of vaccination, which was not 100% effective, outweighed the risk and cost of their incurring the disease.

Earlier attempts to eradicate Fowl Pest, a disease affecting poultry prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s, had shown a similar pattern. Failure to eradicate the disease by means of slaughter led in 1962 to a voluntary vaccination policy. But many farmers were reluctant to vaccinate and the critical 80% level was not reached until 1965. Incidents of the disease then declined, but vaccination levels again fell below 80% and in 1970-71 a major epidemic occurred. More effective live vaccines were licensed, which eventually eradicated the disease.

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  • Abigail Woods is Professor in the History of Human and Animal Health at Kings College London. Her research focuses on the history of animal health and agriculture in modern Britain, the evolution of veterinary medicine, and its interconnections with human medicine. She is currently leading a five-year Wellcome Trust-funded programme of research on ‘One medicine? Investigating human and animal disease, c1850-2014’

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